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Didier Deschamps mastered World Cup football to finally silence his fierce critics

On Sunday afternoon, amid a biblical downpour, Didier Deschamps wrote his name into football scripture.

His France team beat Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup final, making him only the third man – after Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo – to lift the trophy as a player and a manager.

Deschamps, alongside the palpable joy the victory brought, must have felt an overriding sense of vindication.

Coming into the tournament, and for the last two years following France’s defeat in the Euro 2016 final on home soil, he had been doubted and criticised incessantly by media and fans, at home and abroad.

Before a ball had even been kicked, some were talking up Zinedine Zidane as a potential replacement. And after arriving in Russia, his team selection and style of play were called into question.

With the delectable array of players at his disposal, he sometimes looked like a mechanic who had taken a Ferrari engine, an Aston Martin chassis and Maserati wheels and cobbled them together to make a Peugeot minibus.

But with this hugely effective and ultimately glorious World Cup campaign, Deschamps has answered the questions in the best way he knows: by winning football matches. The minivan bore the hopes of the French nation and delivered them right to the door of their destination.

Just like he was as a player, Deschamps the manager is an arch pragmatist, a facilitator whose main job is to permit others to perform at their peak. As Eric Cantona once said, Deschamps is the “water carrier”.

But at international level, that sort of rationality is often the best approach.

When in charge of a club side, managers have the luxury of being able to choose a system and bring in players in accordance with their vision. With a national team, they need to look at the resources available and mould them in such a way as to bring out the best in each individual.

With this squad, Deschamps managed to do just that, setting up the collective to allow his three best players to thrive. It is not a coincidence that Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe all shone against Croatia.

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Griezmann won (read: dived for) and took the free-kick that Mario Manzukic nodded into his own net for the opening goal and coolly converted a penalty for the second. Pogba added the third after an incisive move that he instigated with the pass of the tournament.

And Mbappe got the crowning fourth, disguising his shot beautifully to become the first teenager since Pele to score in a World Cup final.

Before travelling to Russia, and even after their dreary first game against Australia, it was thought that Pogba could not excel unless the coach used a 4-3-3 and Griezmann could not do his best work in a team that was not set up in a 4-4-2.

Earlier this year, Christophe Dugarry, who won the 1998 World Cup as a team-mate of Deschamps, said: “For me, Pogba’s lost his place in the starting line-up. Kante’s indispensable, and if you play in a 4-4-2, it’s Matuidi or Tolisso alongside him. Right now, Tolisso’s better than Pogba.”

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But Deschamps, in the midst of the pressure that this global event brings, came up with a practical solution. In a lop-sided 4-2-3-1, the Manchester United man would play in the middle alongside Kante, with Blaise Matuidi coming in on the left and Olivier Giroud playing as the team’s reference point in attack.

After their second game against Peru, Pogba said that Matuidi and Kante “must have 15 lungs” each, given the ground they covered to protect their defence. Their work rate, as well as protecting the back four, freed up Pogba to get forward and influence the attack and Kylian Mbappe to bomb on without worrying too much about what was going on behind him.

That effect was at its most obvious in the round-of-16 tie with Argentina, when Mbappe ripped the South American defence to pieces and Pogba ran the match from the centre of midfield. It is also instructive to compare Deschamps with the man in the other dugout that afternoon, Jorge Sampaoli.

Sampaoli is anything but a pragmatist, firmly wedded to his ideas about high-intensity pressing and fullbacks flying up the pitch to create overloads on the flanks. When he became manager of the national team, he tried to implement this style. But owing to the lack of quality wing-backs and quick central defenders available to Argentina, his strategy failed.

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Unlike Deschamps, Sampaoli could not adapt to his surroundings. When his plan A flopped, he was unable to come up with a plan B. As a result, Argentina crashed out and, on the day that Deschamps was lifting the trophy, Sampaoli was sacked.

Deschamps’ pragmatism has rattled some cages, with many complaining about the lack of sparkle in France’s displays and some confusing proper defending with negativity. Thibaut Courtois even accused them of “anti-football” after the semi-final victory over Belgium.

But that did not worry Deschamps’ team – Griezmann responded by taking the mickey out of Courtois – and will certainly not be bothering any of the 1 million people who crammed onto the Champs Elysees after the final to celebrate their triumph.

It is also worth noting how well each individual in France’s back four played throughout the tournament, with Raphael Varane one of the outstanding centre-backs in Russia, Samuel Umtiti magnificent in the final and the inexperienced Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard surpassing all expectations.

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But defensive displays of that sort can only happen in a collective that is functioning correctly. France knew when to drop deep and soak up pressure, as they did in the opening exchanges of the final when Croatia were pressing high, and when to attack.

Giroud, despite not having a single shot on target during the campaign, was also pivotal to that cohesiveness. He was the outlet valve that the team looked to when they were under pressure and the axis around which French attacks turned, using his physical presence to push defenders back, in turn creating space for Griezmann and Mbappe.

Croatia’s Luka Modric won the Golden Ball, and deservedly so. But the fact that the winner was also the player who ran most at this World Cup – one who so obviously prioritises the team over personal glory – shows that this was a tournament defined more by collective play than by outstanding individuals.

France, therefore, were appropriate winners. They may not have wowed us all in every game, but they have always come up with the necessary quality at the vital moments. As Deschamps said after the game, “The group worked so hard and we had some tough moments along the way. It hurt so much to lose the Euro two years ago, but it made us learn too.”

They learned how to stick together, they learned how to play together and, most importantly, they learned how to win together. And Deschamps, for his part, has gone down in history.

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