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France Is Only Going To Get Better

The 2018 World Cup final didn’t disappoint (though this website predicted that it might). France beat Croatia 4-2 in a match that yielded more goals than the previous three finals combined. For Croatia’s golden generation, this might have been the last hurrah. Their best players — Golden Ball winner Luka Modric and midfield genius Ivan Rakitic — are both on the wrong side of 30, and this was probably their last shot at winning the thing. The same is hardly true for this incarnation of Les Bleus: They’re very young, and they might just be getting started.

With an average age of 25.4 years (weighted by minutes played), this was the youngest World Cup-winning team since at least 1966, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. And although it sounded a little odd to hear from the Fox commentators after the match, it was true that France hardly scratched the surface of its potential during the tournament. Relative to other Cup winners, it had the fourth-lowest goal differential per 90 minutes and the second-worst possession rate of any victor since 1966:

France didn’t control the ball much in victory

World Cup winners with the lowest possession rates, 1966-2018

goals Per 90 Min.
Year Team weighted Avg. Age* W L T for against diff. Poss%
1966 England 26.6 5 0 1 1.7 0.5 +1.2 46.2%
2018 France 25.4 6 0 1 1.8 0.8 +1.1 48.6
2006 Italy 28.7 5 0 2 1.5 0.3 +1.2 48.7
1982 Italy 28.6 3 1 3 1.7 0.8 +0.8 48.8
2002 Brazil 27.1 7 0 0 2.4 0.5 +1.9 48.9
1986 Argentina 26.5 6 0 1 2.0 0.7 +1.3 52.0
1978 Argentina 25.5 4 1 2 2.0 0.5 +1.5 52.8
1998 France 27.9 6 0 1 1.8 0.2 +1.6 53.6
1970 Brazil 25.9 6 0 0 3.1 1.1 +2.0 54.8
1974 Germany 27.1 4 3 0 1.8 0.6 +1.3 56.0
1990 Germany 28.0 4 1 2 1.9 0.7 +1.3 57.8
1994 Brazil 28.1 5 0 2 1.4 0.4 +1.0 59.4
2014 Germany 27.0 6 0 1 2.2 0.5 +1.7 60.0
2010 Spain 27.0 6 1 0 1.0 0.3 +0.8 65.3

* Ages are as of the opening date of the World Cup, weighted by minutes played for the team during the tournament.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information

But, boy, does this team ever have room to grow. Of France’s top 13 most valuable players according to TransferMarkt.com, just two are over the age of 25. And many of them haven’t even cracked the starting lineup yet. Didier Deschamps’s group won in Russia by playing pragmatic — if boring — soccer. Deschamps asked his players to park the bus more often than he gave them the keys to drive it. But the French roster is brimming with attacking talent — and if Deschamps wants to keep his job,1 he’ll probably be asked to employ a more offensive style of play going forward.

France isn’t going away soon

Age and market value (according to TransferMarkt) for top players on the 2018 French national team

Player Age Market Value
Kylian Mbappé 19 $142.6m
Antoine Griezmann 27 118.8
Paul Pogba 25 106.9
Ousmane Dembélé 21 95.0
Raphaël Varane 25 83.2
Thomas Lemar 22 77.2
Samuel Umtiti 24 71.3
Nabil Fekir 24 71.3
N’Golo Kanté 27 71.3
Florian Thauvin 25 59.4
Benjamin Mendy 23 47.5
Corentin Tolisso 23 47.5
Lucas Hernández 22 41.6

Source: transfermarkt.com

Luckily for Les Bleus, Best Young Player Award recipient Kylian Mbappé, who became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since 1958 when some guy named Pelé did so for Brazil, will be just 23 when the next World Cup rolls around (and he’ll be just 21 at Euro 2020). And he’s not the only world-beating young forward on France’s roster: Nabil Fekir, Ousmane Dembélé and Thomas Lemar are all 24 years old or younger. It may sound odd, but the current holders of the FIFA World Cup probably aren’t the best version of themselves yet.

Despite being set up to defer possession and withstand opposition attack after opposition attack, this French group still outperformed offensive expectations: They scored 1.84 goals per 90 minutes, 0.64 goals per 90 more than their expected goals rate of 1.20. All that while relying on a forward (Olivier Giroud) who plays much of the game with his back to the goal, more subdued and defensive-minded versions of Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba that hardly resemble their club selves, and a teenager.

As France’s attacking players enter their respective primes — and if Deschamps allows them to play more beautifully — the goal tallies are just going to increase. Les Bleus ought to be scary in two years at Euro 2020, and they ought to be downright devastating in the fall of 2022 in Qatar. France may have just claimed its second ever World Cup trophy, but its best ever team may well exist in the future.

Footnotes

  1. Cue Zidane and Wenger rumors.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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