ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — It’s one of the oldest footballing maxims out there, and it exists in different idioms and cultures. Giovanni Trapattoni used to say that a good coach could make a team 5 percent better, but a bad one — or, to be a bit more civil, a coach who makes wrong decisions — could make a side 30 percent worse.
Diego Simeone served up his own version in his recent leaked WhatsApp j’accuse by saying that results were ordinarily 90 percent down to players, but when you have a disaster of a coaching staff (read: Jorge Sampaoli), then they can only influence things up to 60 percent.
France vs. Belgium at St. Petersburg’s version of the Death Star was a study in two contrasting managers. One, Didier Deschamps, lives by football’s version of the Hippocratic Oath: above all, do no harm. His France team do not have a distinct footballing identity beyond the Deschamps version of Hulk Hogan’s four demandments, only Didi has three: defend, work hard and wait for something to happen. There is no multiplier effect tactically, no attempt to create particular synergies between his players through sophisticated movement and positioning. It’s about trusting your big guns to do something of their own volition while raising the barricades at the back.
That’s why you see France with three central midfielders and poor Paul Pogba asked to play little more than a bouncer role in front of the back four. And because that’s not enough, he gets help from the ubiquitous N’Golo Kante (if defensive players won awards, he’d be a shoo-in) and Blaise Matuidi too. All this in front of a back four with two safety-first fullbacks.
The other is Roberto Martinez who, believing in the added value his tactical mind brings, conjures up complicated schemes to get the best out of his side. When it works, it’s very good. When it doesn’t — and against France, it fell as flat as a road-graded waffle — it’s a disaster.
Before we get into it, let’s remind ourselves that Martinez has some mitigating circumstances. The first is that unlike Deschamps, he wasn’t born with a silver spoon. He didn’t have the same sort of stellar career as a player and wasn’t handed a top team straight out of retirement, either. He got where he is because he has a clearly defined approach to football and a reputation as a guy who makes teams more than the sum of their parts. So for him, going the Deschamps’ route of laissez-faire was not an option.
The other was that he was missing Thomas Meunier, who may not be a superstar outside his own household but was a critical cog in Belgium’s machine. He was the natural right-sided defender who could be deployed in a back four or as a wing-back. But Meunier was suspended for this match and his absence set off a chain of events that ultimately proved to be Belgium’s undoing.
Martinez opted for a hybrid set-up that essentially featured a back three with Nacer Chadli (who played on the left in his last outing) over on the right and Jan Vertonghen playing as a sort of narrow left-back who never ventures forward. Chadli saw plenty of the ball but had little luck against Lucas Hernandez; the real issue was that it forced Martinez to add another big body (Mousa Dembele) in midfield alongside Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel. Fellaini managed to disappear for long stretches (quite a feat for a man his size), while Dembele slowed Belgium down considerably (though he did get a few good licks in off the ball).
“We were missing a very important player and we adapted in the best possible manner,” Martinez said. “Pace is the real threat on this France team, and we coped with it very well — we never really got hurt on the counter. In the end, the difference was a goal from a set piece.”
That’s textbook glass-half-full-ism because it was always going to be the case that France were going to sit and look to hit on the break. It’s the Deschamps way. Yes, Belgium largely neutralized that, but the issue is that they did not create as much at the other end despite boasting Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, two of the best playmakers in the world. And a lot of that had to do with a stodgy midfield that often circulated the ball with all the predictability of bad Aaron Sorkin dialogue.
Limit the game to chances created and conceded (at least before the final quarter-hour, when Belgium naturally threw caution to the wind) and you might even argue this game could easily have gone the other way.
“We controlled the game, and just as we were growing in the second half, they scored on a corner,” Martinez said. “That’s how close this game was. If we had scored first, it would have been different. But the margins are very small.”
They certainly are and they have been throughout this World Cup, where the knockout rounds have seen six of 13 games decided by a goal or less — and four more on penalties after 120 minutes of deadlocked football. But that’s why it becomes so critical for a manager to impose his will on the match.
For Deschamps, it was not to concede. For Martinez, it was to create chances and control the game. The former succeeded, the latter did not. And sure, some will point out that simply not conceding when you have better players than the opposition is easier than actually creating and a bit of a cop out. But that’s how Deschamps and France got this far.
And he’s not about to change.
“We have to be pragmatic and we have to be realistic,” Deschamps said. “We are about mental strength and solidarity, working for each other.”
He rattles off examples of how proud he is of his players: Pogba (“monstrous and tactically intelligent”), the defenders (“stopped them from playing for most of the game”), Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud (“so clever in how they dropped into midfield to let the Belgian defenders who — and I do not mean to offend them — are technically inferior have the ball”).
This is what he values: a team whose collars are as blue as their shirts. And while knowing that if he tinkers too much, he’s only going to mess things up.
Thus far, this France team have done the bare minimum of what they had to do. Give Argentina enough rope to hang themselves. A set piece header and a goalkeeping error against Uruguay. Samuel Umtiti beating Fellaini in the air.
You see flashes that make you think they can do much, much more — Kylian Mbappe being Exhibit A, as he was much better than against Uruguay but faded in and out as Tuesday’s semifinal game wore on. But then you realize France don’t really need to. They’re happy playing the percentages, and that’s how Deschamps likes it.
France ain’t broke. They’re in the World Cup final. Why fix it?
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.