That blue wave just keeps on breaking. For the second time in five days at Al Bayt Stadium, France won a high‑stakes World Cup knockout game without at any stage being behind; without at any stage playing that well; and also without looking like they were ever seriously going to lose.
Morocco were exceptionally good, pushing France back, but somehow always finding ways to not convert their slick, probing possession into goals. How to win: a study in Deschampian minimalism. Maybe someone should write a proper thesis on this.
It will involve a great deal of emphasis on moments, on care of the details. And on the role of Antoine Griezmann, who was once again decisive, spiky, hyper‑involved, always reading, nibbling away at every little part of the game around him, a high‑grade footballing hamster.
France are the new Germany, the theory goes, or rather the new West Germany, a team that simply feels it will win, and understands exactly how this will happen. With this in mind it seemed fitting that Griezmann played here like a blend of Lothar Matthäus, Andreas Brehme and even Jürgen Kohler, appearing repeatedly in the French penalty area to clear the ball as Morocco pressed hard.
It was Griezmann who made the opening goal of this 2-0 victory. He did it from those spaces, the ones that opposition players still just don’t seem to be able to cope with. Maybe it is the novelty of his own new midfield role, the way he has taken to it with such hunger. Does anyone else play that role quite like this, with the same constant devil, always on the half-turn?
Griezmann was there again in the inside right channel as Raphaël Varane’s pass was fizzed into his feet.
This was a horrible little pocket, the kind of space that causes klaxons, panic, smoke. It was Jawad El Yamiq who blinked, galloping out towards the ball, but going past Griezmann and haring off towards the far corner of the stadium, a man pursued by an invisible cloud of pterodactyls.
Griezmann was already gone, veering in towards goal and releasing the ball into the pistol chamber. Kylian Mbappé’s shot was blocked. It rebounded out towards the left, where Théo Hernandez produced a wonderful kung-fu flying finish.
France’s players turned to Griezmann, pulling him into the huddle, embracing their point of difference. Filling that hole left by the absence of any other really high-craft attacking midfielders was always a huge task. Griezmann has done this so well he has ended up France’s most important midfield part on this run. Didier Deschamps is often seen as something of a roundhead. This has been a lovely little creative chef’s touch.
Al Bayt Stadium is a genuine human oddity, a fibreglass super-tent, Godzilla’s marquee, dumped down in the lone and level sands 20 miles from Doha. But it was absolutely zinging at kick-off, Moroccan supporters at both ends creating a call and response, a storm of static barrelling back and forth.
It was France who started quicker. Griezmann moved constantly in that period, dropping deep to give an overload when they had possession, moving into the holes to give a passing option when the wingers pulled wide. The way he plays this role shows how liberating having two defensive midfielders can be, how it can free space too, can provide a sword as well as a shield. You need a footballer with the right creative intelligence to make this work. Perhaps one of England’s midfielders could evolve into this kind of free seven, this regista‑enforcer? Is this what some alternate-dimension Dele Alli was meant to be? Or a future Grealish, circuits reprogrammed?
There were some comedy moments too. How good are France? Well, they do still rely at centre-forward on the deep bovine physical splendour of Olivier Giroud, a footballer who doesn’t exactly run, who never really ever ran, but instead rumbles grandly like a mahogany armoire being slid along a polished parquet floor on a fine silk rococo rug.
This is not a slight on Giroud, who is a wonderful player with a stellar record. But stick Karim Benzema in this team and you suspect nobody is getting close. Giroud missed two chances here, the first after a winning a foot race with Romain Saïss, a remarkable spectacle in itself, like two men running the wrong way along a travelator. Two minutes later Saïss came off, holding his leg together with one hand. Sometimes God gives you a sign.
And then something else happened. France shrunk, quivered, fell back, subdued by a concentrated weather front of Moroccan pressure. It was Hakim Ziyech who began to float into those difficult pockets, while Griezmann ratted and fought, made tackles, interceptions and clearances. He made four crosses, was fouled four times, was playing as a defensive midfielder by the time Randal Kolo Muani added a second goal.
France will now face the great Lionel, the hot desert wind of destiny, and all the rest of it. The narrative states they aren’t probably supposed to win. But they certainly know how. And they have in Griezmann arguably the most resourceful footballer at this World Cup.