It’s fitting that France’s run to the World Cup final has been centred around a polarising midfield.
As a player, Didier Deschamps anchored some of the best midfields to grace the game, although his efforts often went under the radar.
Eric Cantona, never a man to find himself perched on the fence, said of Deschamps’ playing style: “You can find players like him on every street corner.
“At present Didier likes to act like a monk and a moralist but he’ll end up wallowing in every kind of vice.”
Deschamps now returns to a World Cup final as coach, 20 years after captaining France in Les Bleus’ 1998 triumph against Brazil.
It was Zinedine Zidane who took the headlines on that July evening and it’s likely to be France’s new no.10, Kylian Mbappe, who does the same if France overcome Croatia.
But France’s understated midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and N’Golo Kante have been the foundations upon which the French flair has been laid.
It took a dire 2-1 win against Australia, in which VAR was France’s best player, for Deschamps to bring the trio together.
Even then, it didn’t instantly click.
In France’s second group game, a narrow 1-0 win against Peru, Deschamps sat Pogba next to Kante in midfield and used Matuidi in a left-wing role.
Having secured a safe passage out of the group stages, Deschamps rested Pogba and Matuidi against Denmark in what turned out to be the worst game of the tournament.
France hadn’t clicked yet, but that’s all the first three games of the World Cup are about. Ironing out the wrinkles while making sure you stay in the tournament.
In the knockout rounds France’s midfield stepped up to the plate.
Kante produced a man marking masterpiece in the Round of the 16 tie against Argentina to reduce Lionel Messi from a goat to a shy cat.
Any time Messi picked up the ball he had the smiling assasin Kante for company, whirring around his ankles managing to be simultaneously football’s biggest pest and most likeable character.
He’s not so much a water-carrier as a champagne flute-wielding enabler.
Pogba’s role shouldn’t be diminished either. As the tournament progressed he’s kept things increasingly simple, which can’t be easy when you possess the ludicrous box of tricks he does.
It was his tackle that led to Mbappe’s tournament defining run against Argentina. In fact, only Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Kante have made more tackles during the World Cup.
Matuidi collected the ‘Andres Iniesta assist’ for the pass-before-the-pass in the build up to both Benjamin Pavard’s Goal of the Tournament and Mbappe’s last strike.
Corentin Tolisso came in for the suspended Matuidi against Uruguay in the quarter-final but France’s midfield again stood up to a physically exhausting test.
It was a game which required more grunt than guile but Pogba in particular came to the fore against a mobile Uruguay midfield unit.
Then came the semi-final against Belgium.
Roberto Martinez packed his midfield with Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele, hoping to physically dominate France leaving space for Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard to thrive.
However his tactics were undone by Pogba, Matuidi and Kante, who were everywhere.
They matched Belgium for physicality and technique, with Matuidi simultaneously playing left-back, left-wing and central midfield.
Deschamps is by no means a favourite of the French public or media. He tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to team selection and shape.
But in moulding a midfield capable of winning games through blood or caviar he’s ensured France don’t just have to rely on attacking flair, as has been the case in the past.
They won’t win any awards, but rest assured France’s midfield trio deserve one. So here you go, gents: The Dream Team Midfield Unit of the Tournament.