France and Individual Reinvention

And then there were two. After France’s 2-0 victory against Morocco in the semi-finals of the World Cup, they and Argentina have cemented their spots in the grand final. 

Argentina’s run has been full of emotion and stories, causing people to create this contrast between their seemingly erratic nature and France’s stoic dominance and machine-like style. This couldn’t be further from the truth, however, despite the quality this French squad possesses.

Ahead of the finals on Sunday, here are some players we have counted out since their win in 2018 that remain a crucial piece for Didier Deschamps, and ones who grew into their roles during Qatar.

Antoine Griezmann

Perhaps the biggest story for France in Qatar, Griezmann has completely flipped the script and emerged as arguably the best French player at the tournament in a squad consisting of Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, and Aurelien Tchouameni.

The 31-year-old has had a tough stretch of years following a World Cup win in Russia. After becoming the fifth most expensive transfer in history from Atletico Madrid to Barcelona, the Frenchman only managed to score 30 times and assist 18 times in 114 matches including his return to Madrid. Griezmann outscored that 4-season stretch in the two years before making the move.

The point here is that he was on his way out by the looks of it. 31 years of age is prime years for a footballer and he was declining up until making it to Qatar.

After Karim Benzema’s injury — only a week before the World Cup kicked off — Deschamps switched from a 3-5-2 to somewhat of a deeper 4-2-3-1 with a focus on Giroud to allow Ousmane Dembele and Mbappe to push forward. Crucial to this has been Griezmann however, who has been the heart of creation for France.

He has assisted on three goals for France out of an expected three and has become France’s all-time leading assister in the process. Among all players in the 2022 World Cup, he ranks third behind Mbappe and Lionel Messi in shot-creating actions (31) and live-ball passes that have led to a shot (18) proving that in a squad full of creators, he has been vital to their transition.

The numbers don’t even do his performance justice, either. You can see the focus on him during games and how sought out he is by the French players looking to link a deep defense to an explosive attack. Hopefully, this is something he can sustain until after Qatar but with the gap between international and club play becoming wider, this may have been a fun, one-month story.

Adrien Rabiot

From the most important player in the French squad to the most underrated, Rabiot’s road from the last World Cup to now was far from smooth and more of a “story” than anything influenced by his play.

The 27-year-old has had a history of questionable behavior and his passionate mother — for lack of a better word — certainly never helped. The disappointing exit in the Euros to Switzerland was followed by tension between his mother and Mbappe’s father over the missed penalty, leading to awkwardness between Rabiot and the rest of the squad but not an unfamiliar situation.

The player himself has also been difficult in dealing with the French setup, withdrawing from the 2018 World Cup selection list after claiming he felt slighted for always being selected as a result of an injury, according to Daily Star.

“If I have decided to withdraw from the list of reservations it is because I consider the choice of the recruiter in my regard does not respond to any sporting logic because for all these years the message was clear, it is the performances in the club that open the doors to the French national team,” Rabiot said.

Overall, there was a lot of drama surrounding Rabiot and how he’d handle being around so many players who demanded the playing time he sought. All of this has occurred with the same coaching staff as Didier Deschamps was there in 2016 for his flare-up but his play has made him undroppable.

Ironically, the Juventus midfielder is now starting in place of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba (the two players he felt were taking his spot) as a result of their injuries while also being used to mimic their profile alongside Aurelien Tchouameni. While Tchouameni has assumed the defensive workload that Kante would’ve had as well as some progression, Rabiot has become a deep-lying playmaker, allowing Griezmann to focus higher up while he strings together defense and midfield.

The setup has allowed France to run a very expansive style while remaining conservative in defense and it has to do with how flexible Rabiot has been on both sides of the ball. The former PSG product has had an 80% success rate on tackles while currently tied for third among all players in the World Cup in interceptions to add to his attacking sophistication.

His excellent form wasn’t exactly a huge surprise for many as he has been playing very well for Juventus this season despite their underwhelming performance as a team, but no one could have foreseen his significance in a squad full of world-class talent. The Frenchman’s status for the finals is questionable after falling ill but make no mistake; he has fulfilled expectations and then some.

Olivier Giroud

Now, this may not be a story of a player in the middle of reinvention, but Giroud is certainly the epitome of consistency, and his performance this tournament is the prime example of never writing someone off, even despite his already brilliant club form.

Before the World Cup, fans were salivating at the prospect of a Benzema-Mbappe attack flanked by Theo Hernandez and Ousmane Dembele following the Real Madrid talisman’s Ballon d’Or win, but injuries had other plans. 

Instead, as mentioned before, we got a more conventional formation with a true #9 at the center of the attack. Forwards like Giroud are a dying breed nowadays with teams opting for shoving any and all attacking talent forward to overwhelm defenses with 6-man attacks but France clearly went another route.

The result was French delight. Kylian Mbappe now sits at five goals, the aforementioned Griezmann found his joy, and overall the structure works, all thanks to Giroud and his selfless, yet opportunistic, mindset. Once dubbed as a “go-kart” by Karim Benzema, the former Montpellier forward now sits at four goals in Qatar, surpassing Thierry Henry as France’s top all-time goal scorer.

Giroud’s World Cup has been less about needing to prove himself and recovering from bumps he faced along the way, and more so about loudly reminding people that despite the personnel France has, the “outdated” game he plays, and any narrative surrounding an older forward that is surrounded by young and flamboyant attackers, he continues to find success. A timeless player and forever an icon of the modern game who perfectly defines the ongoing theme of redemption and reassurance in this French squad.

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