Four years ago, France defeated Argentina 4-3 in a genuine epic of a World Cup second-round game. It was the day Kylian Mbappe transformed from a future great into one of the world’s best — his stunning 70-yard sprint to win a penalty ended up being the defining image of his World Cup, France’s World Cup, and World Cup 2018 overall.
Lionel Messi, part of a shambolic Argentina side, was peripheral. It seemed Messi’s dominance was over. After 11 years in the top three, he didn’t finish on the Ballon d’Or podium that year. Neither, in fairness, did Mbappe — although he was obviously the coming force, set to become better and better.
But these things don’t always work out as expected. When Rafael Nadal defeated five-time winner Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, surely the greatest of all time, it was considered to be something similar, a changing of the guard. But Federer won Wimbledon the following year, then again three years after that, and another five years after that.
The same has happened here. Messi won the Ballon d’Or in both 2019 and 2021. There was no 2020 award and his current form is arguably the best he’s shown for years. Mbappe, incidentally, still hasn’t beaten his fourth-placed Ballon d’Or finish from 2018. The baton hasn’t been passed after all.
This obsession with individual awards — and more generally individualism — in a team sport that is more collective than ever can become tiresome. But often, in international football, it proves prescient. It brings to mind the build-up before Portugal and Sweden’s two-legged play-off for World Cup 2014, when the focus was almost entirely on Cristiano Ronaldo versus Zlatan Ibrahimovic. What about the 20 other players? Well, it finished Portugal 4 Sweden 2 — or, to be more specific, Ronaldo 4 Ibrahimovic 2.
International football lends itself to battles between star individuals. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of clubs who can afford to buy Messi or Mbappe at their peak. Sure enough, they are now club team-mates (as it happens, at a club owned by the nation playing host to this final). Those clubs surround superstars with fellow superstars.
But at international level, you get one-offs, players superior to all their team-mates. Squads are more hierarchical. Whether it’s Messi, Mbappe or Neymar for genuine challengers, Sadio Mane, Son Heung-min or Robert Lewandowski for outsiders, or Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez or Erling Haaland for nations who haven’t even qualified, often international sides are based solely around one man.
That’s undeniably the case here, even accounting for the fact Mbappe might not even have been France’s best player, thanks to the form of Antoine Greizmann. You can tell Mbappe is the star man because whereas Griezmann has been forced to drop into a deeper role, harrying and chasing as much as creating and scoring, Mbappe is allowed almost complete freedom from defensive duties, sometimes with centre-forward Olivier Giroud dropping into midfield.
Opta has recorded Mbappe as having completed 0.2 defensive actions per game, the least of any outfielder in the entire tournament. He saves his energy for attacking bursts, which means France left-back Theo Hernandez — himself a fine attacking player but a weak defender — has often been exposed. Both England and Morocco focused on attacking the space behind Mbappe. In the semi-final, 53 per cent of Morocco’s attacking touches were in the right third of the pitch (Mbappe’s side), which is the highest share of any game in the tournament.
Messi also receives near-freedom from defending and has spent much of this tournament simply walking around rather than running — to a greater extent than any other player and far more than any other central attacker.
Others happily pick up the slack. Against Croatia, that was obvious from the role played by Julian Alvarez.
In possession, he was Argentina’s No 9 — sprinting in behind to win the penalty for the first goal, bundling his way through for the second and turning home Messi’s cut-back for the third.
Without possession, Alvarez became Argentina’s No 10, dropping into midfield to mark the opposition holding player. Messi dawdles back somewhere to the right (and justifies this freedom by doing precisely what he did for that third goal, leaving Josko Gvardiol for dead).
The intrigue, of course, comes from the fact this is all interconnected and the action will — on paper — take place largely down that side. If Mbappe continues to remain high up, then France risk Hernandez being isolated again and Messi will happily wander over into any spaces down that side.
The touch map below shows how little overlap there is between the areas of the pitch the two players operate in. Mbappe has rarely touched the ball in his own half at this World Cup, which suggests there could be plenty of space for Messi to exploit.
Tactically, the ball is in Lionel Scaloni’s court. France have maintained the same shape throughout this competition, 4-3-3, with a very similar set of players barring injury (and the final group game against Tunisia, when Didier Deschamps rested his first-teamers).
Scaloni continues to mix and match. He started the competition with a 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1 depending on how you interpret Messi’s role. He then switched to a 4-3-3 for the clash with Poland, using Messi centrally and Alvarez from the left, before using a 5-3-2 against the Netherlands. For the semi-final, it was back to more of a 4-4-2, with a very narrow midfield designed to negate Croatia’s strength in the centre.
France offer a different challenge. Scaloni will be most concerned with stopping the Mbappe-Hernandez flank and may have the option of a fit-again Angel Di Maria, the matchwinner in last year’s Copa America final. Scaloni might decide he doesn’t need two holding midfielders and therefore can jettison Leandro Paredes.
That could mean he ends up going back to something like the 4-3-3 he used against Poland. Rodrigo De Paul and Alexis Mac Allister could play either side of Enzo Fernandez, with Di Maria tracking back with — and sprinting past — Hernandez, then Alvarez higher up on the other flank, safe in the knowledge Jules Kounde barely pushes forward from right-back. That would mean the formations looking something like this:
There are individual selection decisions to make, too. Deschamps has generally preferred Dayot Upamecano over his former RB Leipzig team-mate Ibrahima Konate, but Upamecano looked impetuous against England, whereas Konate excelled against Morocco. Adrien Rabiot will hope to return from a bout of flu — if not, Youssouf Fofana will keep his place in midfield. Aurelien Tchouameni and Hernandez didn’t train with the main group on Friday but are expected to start.
Scaloni was without Marcos Acuna through suspension against Croatia but he will probably return at left-back in place of Nicolas Tagliafico.
All in all, the final is perfectly poised. Most bookmakers are offering exactly the same odds for France or Argentina to lift the trophy. A couple consider France to be favourites and a couple believe Argentina are the favourites. This has been a largely good World Cup, arguably only lacking one truly legendary game. Perhaps this will be it.
(Top graphic: Mark Carey)