CAPE TOWN – They always say attack sells tickets, defence wins games. Or, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson’s version of this philosophy: “Attack wins games, defence wins titles.” This credo was proved in an absorbing 2018 World Cup semi-final on Tuesday when France managed to blunt the much-vaunted Belgium attack.
And, yet, we all know how potent the French offence can actually be - they certainly have the personnel available. But, to ensure they got past Belgium, they sacrificed flair in favour of a more judicious approach, and it worked. While there were flashes of inspiration from Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann, the victory was founded on a solid defensive platform, with centre-back Raphael Varane a colossal, impregnable presence.
France’s defensive spirit was summed up in the endurance and tenacity of N’Golo Kanté and the unselfish industry of Blaise Matuidi; and, more than that, it was encapsulated by Griezmann playing a lot deeper, striker Olivier Giroud making tackles at the back and even Paul Pogba clearing headers in his own penalty box.
The thing about football, in a tournament such as this, is patience, strategy, game management and, most of all, the collective: individuality can only operate within the team structure. Think of 2010, when France had a disparate bunch of egos in the team, all pulling their own way, and they imploded, spectacularly and ignominiously; and, in 2014, they crashed out in the quarter-finals. Based on such experiences, France knew they had to be a bit more circumspect in their approach at Russia 2018; sit tight, hold firm, suck in the opposition and, then, strike when the moment is right.
Importantly, at a World Cup, the most critical aspect is to minimise errors - essentially, the foundation of manager Didier Deschamps’ game plan: he will have critics - about his caution, his shackling of creative players and his squad selection - but... France are in the World Cup final.
* For Belgium, there was certainly no shame or disgrace in defeat. In sport, there has to be a winner and a loser - and the Belgians gave as good as they got. In fact, they probably gave a lot more, but lost out to a wiser France. The first goal in the semi-final was always going to be important: whoever scored was going to have the advantage, in that they could manage the game and then play off the opponent’s desperate desire to draw level.
All in all, though, Belgium played their part in a wonderful World Cup that will have fans walking on air, in awe and wonder, for a long, long time after the conclusion of the event. Who can forget how Belgium took out favourites Brazil with certainly the most stunning counter-attack football?
But, as is so often the case in the aftermath of an event such as this, the negative will invariably outweigh the positive: the criticism will be that Belgium’s “golden generation” have still not won anything.
They bowed out in the semi-finals in 2018; in 2014, they lost out in the quarter-finals and in the 2016 Euros. But, for me, nothing wrong with that; Belgium have still done very well: the margin between winning and losing at such high-profile tournaments is very small, and they should not be judged on a narrow defeat to France.