Most rankings include insults or detractions of some kind. For France, we have none. Every single player on their World Cup-winning squad deserves some praise, and they’re going to get it here. This is one of deepest top-to-bottom teams to ever compete at a World Cup, and the only bad thing you can say about Les Bleus’ bench is that they weren’t quite as good as the superstars in front of them.
Without further ado, here’s what every single France player contributed.
NR: Adil Rami, Alphonse Areola
Only two France players didn’t see the pitch during their campaign, their fourth center back and third goalkeeper. Rami’s been a rock-solid starter in Europe for 12 years and Areola turned in some big performances for Paris Saint-Germain last season. They probably would have done well if called upon.
21. Florian Thauvin
A last-place ranking is harsh on Thauvin, who was an 89th minute substitute in one game. Following a superb 26 goal season for Marseille, just about any team in the tournament would have been thrilled to have him. He was only kept out by the unrelenting brilliance of Kylian Mbappe.
20. Benjamin Mendy
Theo Hernandez beat him out for the starting left back job simply because injury kept him from playing regularly for Manchester City last season, but Mendy will be an important player for France in the future. He might have been a backup defender, but he’s a first choice poster and is dominating the hat game.
19. Thomas Lemar
Lemar never really got a chance to shine because of his manager’s philosophy. Extremely attacking option Ousmane Dembele started the opener, while Blaise Matuidi and Corentin Tolisso started the matches where Didier Deschamps wanted a defensive left winger. But Lemar provides a great compromise option, with some defensive work rate and ball retention, but plenty of technical ability and creativity as well. Expect to see more of him at Euro 2020.
18. Steve Mandanda
With France having clinched a spot in the knockout round ahead of their final group stage game, Mandanda got the start against Denmark and kept a clean sheet. He had a scary moment on a Christian Eriksen free kick, but recovered brilliantly to smother the ball, and never looked under threat otherwise.
17. Djibril Sidibe
Sidibe showed what a reliable player he is at right back during France’s shutout of Denmark. He was beaten out by Benjamin Pavard by the narrowest of margins, and there would have been no drop-off if he had to step into the starting lineup.
16. Presnel Kimpembe
Of all the players who missed out on a starting place simply due to the player in front of them looking marginally better, Kimpembe is the most impressive. He’s fought his way into a starting job with PSG despite the club buying the three most expensive central defenders in history, and he looked up to Samuel Umtiti’s standard in his one start. That any country has Kimpembe as a backup is absurd. The player behind him, Aymeric Laporte, is probably going to start for Manchester City next season. This team is mind-blowing.
15. Ousmane Dembele
The bench player who can feel most aggrieved about not getting enough time to shine is Dembele, a dribbling genius who doesn’t even know which one of his feet is his strong one. Even though it worked and he was ultimately vindicated, Deschamps’ decision to play a defensive winger ahead of Dembele robbed us of what might have been an all-time great team. Hopefully we get to see Dembele and Mbappe at the same time in the future.
14. Nabil Fekir
I’m going to post a really long Nabil Fekir highlight tape here, because I feel like people who don’t follow Lyon closely don’t get how good this guy is. He’s a genius. Please take some time out of your busy day to watch this man work.
Every time he came on as a substitute, he had at least one touch that left you wondering what he could do if he was given a whole 90 minutes to toy with defenders.
13. Corentin Tolisso
Some people were concerned about what France would lose defensively and in transition when Blaise Matuidi was suspended for the quarterfinal. Tolisso stepped right into his role, like-for-like, and rendered Uruguay’s right flank of Nahitan Nández and Martin Caceres completely ineffective. While he’s a good enough player that he deserves to get consistent run as a box-to-box midfielder, Tolisso’s biggest value to both France is Bayern Munich is probably that he’s a Swiss army knife, capable of playing anywhere on the pitch.
12. Steven Nzonzi
N’Golo Kante received a questionable yellow card in the first half of the final, and it threatened to derail France’s World Cup. Their superstar, do-everything defensive midfielder simply wasn’t as aggressive after that. Deschamps’ decision to take Kante off for Nzonzi was certainly a controversial one, but it was proven correct. With a more aggressive defensive midfielder on the pitch, Croatia stopped controlling the game. Five minutes later, France had a third goal and full control of the final.
Nzonzi shut down other games he came into as well. Whenever he entered a match, it seemed like the other team was frustrated in attack from that point onward. He’s often a one-man midfield for Sevilla, and he’s perfect as a defensive sub for his country.
11. Lucas Hernandez
That Hernandez is this low is simply a testament to the players around him. They didn’t leave him with much work to do. But he rarely put a foot wrong and made a big contribution going forward, tallying two assists. He was perhaps the France starter that fans noticed the least, which tells you he wasn’t making any mistakes.
10. Antoine Griezmann
This was, arguably, a disappointing World Cup individually for Griezmann. He didn’t draw the same plaudits as the players around him. He also still ended on four goals and two assists, and did some tireless defensive work. He pressed and made simple passes so that Mbappe and Pogba could shine. A player of his caliber, with his credentials, would be justified in demanding to play in a team that caters to his skills. But he made himself look worse for the benefit of the team.
9. Olivier Giroud
Look, maybe you think Olivier Giroud sucks. Maybe you’re mad that he made the starting lineup at the expense of a more exciting player like Dembele or Fekir. But you can’t tell me this man doesn’t do something important for France. Their ability to kick the ball up to his giant head as a Plan B was undeniably crucial to their success. France didn’t want to risk turning the ball over to Luka Modric in a dangerous area, so they just bypassed him a lot, and it worked!
8. Blaise Matuidi
Blaise Matuidi is one of the world’s best defensive midfielders, and by playing him on the left wing, Deschamps committed two separate crimes against soccer. One, that he asked a player as good as Matuidi so badly out of position. Two, that he played a highly defensive player out wide instead of an entertaining winger. But Matuidi, as he’s done in every situation in his career, worked his ass off to make a positive contribution to the team in that position.
Even though it is completely absurd that he’d ever be asked to do so, he beat defenders to the byline and put a good cross in with his left foot several times. He made intelligent late runs into the box several times. He did these things in addition to the defensive duties that he was asked to do. He looked out of place on the left in France’s first couple games, then looked completely at home by the end of the tournament.
If you asked to him play goalkeeper, he’d be decent at it by September. I bet he could learn how to fix cars in like three weeks. Blaise Matuidi kicks ass.
7. Benjamin Pavard
Pavard was a solid all-around right back at this World Cup. He was virtually unknown to everyone except Stuttgart fans and complete nerds before this World Cup, and he turned in a great defensive performance.
But you care about the goal, so we’ll show the goal. Let’s all watch the goal again. Holy shit, man.
6. Hugo Lloris
OK, so, Lloris is an absolute madman. Sometimes he wilds out and does stuff like this.
Until that howler, Lloris was in the running to win the Golden Gloves; ultimately, that award correctly went to Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois. But Lloris’ spectacular saves more than make up for the bonehead moments. All of France’s knockout stage games were close, and Lloris was asked to make big stops to keep his team ahead or level in all of them.
Lloris is about to pass his manager Didier Deschamps on the all-time appearances list for France, and he’ll surge past Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira soon as well. If he’s France’s starter through the next World Cup, he’ll pass Lilian Thuram for the all-time appearances lead as well. He’s perhaps the only regular France starter from the older generation that bears no blame for their failures, and both he and Mandanda deserved to be the only two who made it to this squad, for this moment.
5. Samuel Umtiti
There was a time in Umtiti’s career when a lot of people thought he projected to left back. At 6’0” in studs on a good day, he’s a bit undersized for a center back. He’s got some ups, but still has very average aerial ability. And yet, Umtiti has emerged as a world class central defender, and probably more critical to his club team these days than his defensive partner, Gerard Pique.
For France, he’s so reliable that the likes of Kimpembe and Laporte aren’t going to get an honest look anytime soon. He anticipates plays before they happen and rarely has to make a tackle. His combination of intelligence and speed mean he just beats strikers to the ball. He’s extremely clean with the ball at his feet. As a cool-headed, undersized left back-center back tweener with no major flaws in his game, he’s the closest thing to Paolo Maldini we’ve seen since the Italian legend retired. And at 24, with only two seasons at the highest level under his belt, Umtiti is probably going to get better.
4. Raphael Varane
Varane has grown in so many ways since arriving at Real Madrid. Once a pure athlete who was physically talented enough to get away with making things up as he went along, he’s matured into an excellent all-around defender with elite technical skill and intelligence to go along with his obvious physical gifts. As he improves and some legends of the game decline, there’s an argument to be made for Varane being the best central defender on the planet.
His play at the beginning of the first half of the final was a complete game-changer, and it was a play that only Varane could have made. Mario Mandzukic was running clear in on goal, but Varane made a recovery run and got the slightest of touches on the ball, allowing Hugo Lloris to make a clearance. If any other defender was in that spot, Mandzukic gets to the ball, and he probably rifles the ball into the back of the net with his second touch. That would have made it 2-2, with Croatia well on top, and then we’d have had a completely different final.
3. Paul Pogba
Respect this man. RESPECT HIM.
Pogba, one of the greatest attacking talents of his generation, is criticized for his lack of goals and assists while playing the restrictive role Jose Mourinho asks him to play at Manchester United. He’s asked to play an even more defensive role for France. And yet, it’s Pogba’s passing that made this France team work, even if he doesn’t have the assist numbers to prove it. His defensive positioning was excellent, and it allowed Kante to chase the ball all over the place without consequence. He was this team’s backbone. Anyone who rebuts that with “one lucky goal, zero assists” is just committed to hating him for no* reason.
*lol you know the reason.
2. N’Golo Kante
It seems like every year of my life, the physical capabilities of the average soccer player has gone up considerably. If you watch a clip of Diego Maradona playing in the 1980s, it looks like the guys he’s up against are stuck in quicksand. It’s so dramatically different from the modern game that it’s hard to believe it’s the same sport. Every good player in a top league in 2018 would have been the most athletic dude on the pitch in the 1986 World Cup final.
And yet, despite this, there is a player in 2018 who stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of his ability to cover ground and continue to sprint at top speed in the 90th minute of games. That people say N’Golo Kante is a not human, but an alien of some kind, or perhaps a machine, seems very unfair to someone who is obviously human and has worked very hard to get as good as he is. But it’s genuinely mind-blowing that it’s possible for someone in this era of extreme fitness and athleticism to stand out so far above his peers. What a player.
1. Kylian Mbappe
This was Mbappe’s World Cup. It’s telling that Deschamps built his entire squad around the concept of letting this one 19-year-old do whatever the hell he wanted while the other players needed to fit a system and sacrifice the way they like to play for the good of the team.
He’s a transcendent talent who, despite likely being five or six years away from the peak of his powers, is already a top five attacker on the planet. He’s the clear heir to Messi and Ronaldo’s throne, and might chase down records that were presumed to be unbreakable. No one has ever been this good at this young of an age.
The goal Mbappe scored in the final is a 200 IQ play. He tricks everyone into thinking he’s going to curl the ball towards the top corner at the far post. Danijel Subasic, a very good goalkeeper and Mbappe’s former teammate, leans hard to that side. He’s then completely bamboozled when Mbappe drives it low and near post instead.
His best play of the tournament was one that didn’t even get him on the box score. While Mbappe was excellent in the group stage, the moment that he seemed to arrive as a superstar — not just a sensational prospect, but an already arrived, game-dominating, capital-s Star — was this run against Argentina.
This was the moment when Javier Mascherano, a true legend of the game who almost never let anyone blow past him, likely decided that he’s way too old for this shit. Marcos Rojo had no choice but to give away a penalty. He had to admit that there was nothing he could to do to stop Mbappe.
When 17-year-old Mbappe was compared favorably to Thierry Henry, there was instant backlash from various corners of the media for heaping too much pressure on a young player, too soon. As it turns out, that comparison might have been a bit conservative. At this tournament, Mbappe looked like Pele in 1958 or Ronaldo, O Fenômeno, in 1998.
And for his team, Mbappe was the difference between France’s disappointing loss in the Euro 2016 final and their domination of the 2018 World Cup. His manager heaped massive responsibility on him, and he delivered. Welcome to the Mbappe Era.