France–Belgium was supposed to be the exciting semifinal. On paper, it featured some of the most exciting attacking talent in the tournament: Romelu Lukaku! Kylian Mbappé! Kevin De Bruyne! Kylian Mbappé again! Feel the excitement … of a 1–0 France win.
Wednesday’s match was supposed to be the 1–0 victory with a set-piece goal. Croatia and England were going to play cagey and someone was going to win narrowly. Tuesday’s game was going to be a track meet. France and Belgium have each excelled in getting behind defenses and attacking big spaces.
Which may be why France in particular was determined not to leave any. Only Belgium believed in its ability to create in tight windows in the final third, and only France had confidence that it could defend against those chances. And so the game settled into a pattern, with France defending deep and compact and looking to run counters through its 19-year-old star Mbappé, and Belgium keeping possession and probing for a way through.
First it had to get past French defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté, who eats up space with the combined power of a million Roombas and was called the best midfielder in the world by Belgium’s own Eden Hazard before the game. You could see his presence bothering Hazard and De Bruyne in and around France’s box, with each trying to bait Kanté away from the other and slip it through, and Kanté chasing them down like he was all four of Pac-Man’s ghosts rolled into one person.
Hazard played the first half like a man who just heard that Real Madrid has an opening on its left wing. France essentially sacrificed Benjamin Pavard to him in the early stages. With Kanté staying close to De Bruyne, Pavard was alone on an island, where he had as much of a chance of stopping Hazard as he would of preventing a volcano from erupting.
But France adjusted, and Belgium seemed reluctant to keep kicking at any one particular door. Roberto Martinez’s lopsided formation—Belgium played with a wingback on one side and a fullback on the other—invited his players to move around and find their own pockets of space, which they did successfully during Belgium’s bright opening to the match. But it was unable to turn its threatening attacks into shots on target, forcing Hugo Lloris to make just a handful of saves, two of them very good.
Belgium’s formation also dared Blaise Matuidi, who plays a conservative left-wing role for France, and French coach Didier Deschamps to challenge the space behind Nacer Chadli on the Belgian right. He might have done that by swapping Matuidi and Mbappé, allowing Matuidi to help Pavard with Hazard and enabling Mbappé to force Chadli back. But Deschamps is more of a stay-the-course type, and was rewarded for his patience when Samuel Umtiti scored with a glancing header five minutes into the second half.
Belgium searched desperately for an equalizer, with players interchanging every couple of minutes to throw a new look at the French defense. Towering midfielder Marouane Fellaini moved to left winger, Hazard went to central midfield, and De Bruyne moved everywhere—inside-left, right winger, and even center back, a position from which he launched long, increasingly hopeless passes up the field in the final minutes. It was like watching someone trying every possible variant of a password he can’t remember. The moves seemed to do more to sap the rhythm from Belgium’s offense than they did to catch the French off-guard.
France’s offense, meanwhile, kept typing in “password1” over and over, no matter how many times Belgium’s not-all-that-stout defense kept saying its username and password were not recognized. Finally, it just called its teenager to come fix it for them. Mbappé is both France’s primary outlet on the break and its best playmaker when the game gets condensed, as evident by this chance he created for Olivier Giroud:
France will likely be favored over either England or Croatia in the final Sunday, but it probably won’t play like the favorite. Deschamps’ conservative approach and the stellar play of Kanté and Mbappé have gotten them this far. Why try to make it exciting now?