France take on Belgium in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup later today. The match promises to be an exciting encounter with the number of quality individuals on either side, but as always, let’s take a closer look as to where the tactical issues and strengths lie for each side and where the battle shall be won today.
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Belgium’s defensive woes and how Martinez can overcome them:
Martinez sprung a surprise in the quarterfinals against Brazil by changing the 3-4-3 formation, used in every game in this World Cup, prior to that match, to a 4-3-3 by using Kevin De Bruyne as a false nine. Belgium defended in a 4-3-3 while they attacked in a 3-4-3, with a lot of fluid interchanging in positions by the players. Belgium might lack that element of surprise anymore unless Martinez decides to have a change in shape all over again and comes up with something new, but that’s a quite distant possibility. The issues for Belgium would be their fragile defensive structure and game plan that was luckily left unpunished by Brazil, with the Red Devils conceding far too many chances for their liking. Against France’s front three(?), this may be an issue as the French forwards, who are generally very clinical.
The biggest worry for Martinez would be the suspension of Thomas Meunier today as he loses the only natural option he has at fullback. He shall most probably be replaced by Yannick Carrasco, who has been underwhelming so far this tournament. I suspect that Martinez will stick to the same game plan as of last match and try to hit France on the counter using the quality of his front three- Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku.
There shall be tweaks of course, primarily in Nacer Chadli’s role. Belgium have to nullify the threat of Kylian Mbappe, a far significant threat on the right side to what they faced against Brazil in the form of Willian. Also, France do not have a dedicated left sided attacker, so their orientation in the 4-3-3 has to shift focus to the left side, rather than their right side as they displayed against Brazil.
Chadli shall most probably be tasked with marking Pogba out of the game if Martinez does persist with the same blueprint. The biggest difference that Beligum will face from their game against Brazil is France’s focus on building up via their right rather than how Brazil favoured their left side. Belgium need to ensure that their orientation when pressing France needs to be perfect so that they do not get opened up easily. Pogba, Griezmann, Pavard and even Giroud all combine down the right for France. If the Brazil game was anything to go by, Vertonghen shall be tasked with pushing up against Mbappe and Chadli against Pogba. It remains to be seen how far Pavard pushes up for France with Hazard positioned high on the left side for springing out on a counter. If he does push up, Belgium will have a numerical disadvantage on the right, which shall only be further exploited by Griezmann’s movement and link up play in between the lines.
The safest bet for Belgium would be to stay as compact and allow crosses into the box, squeezing any space in between the lines to avoid runners in behind the defense. Witsel and Fellaini are both capable of getting the job done defensively and need to remain compact to close down the space in front of their backline. The presence of Alderweireld and Kompany in the heart of their defense should be just about enough to deal with any crosses into the box.
France’s attacking blueprint- Giroud and Griezmann hold the key:
Olivier Giroud has had a quiet tournament so far in terms of getting on the scoresheet, but holds the key in this formation, getting the best out of both Griezmann and Mbappe. His hold up play and single touch layoffs have been key in keeping the flow of the attack going while always being available for receiving a pass and playing a teammate into space. France have not yet quite hit full stride as far as their attack is concerned, looking a bit lacklustre in their patterns of attack barring some variability offered by Paul Pogba in buildup. Their individual quality has made up for it though and they have not suffered to score goals in their last two knockout games.
Their preference to build down the right and switching play to the left, usually to left back Lucas Hernandez, might bode well against the Belgians. There is space in behind the likes of Lukaku and Hazard, who are positioned high and wide to hit the opposition in transitions. Quick switches in play might affect the Belgians as their fluid formation has spaces to attack and play into, especially in between the lines if they are not organized enough, as was on display against Brazil.
Antoine Griezmann has been one of the best players so far this tournament, especially in both the knockout games, where he has been superb with his link up play in attack for Les Bleus. He will be involved in creating overloads on either side and help make function a somewhat disjointed attack at times against deep blocks. Mbappe and Pavard on the right side need to push forward and drag another Belgian player to cover them so that the likes of Pogba can have more freedom on the ball, bereft of any sort of pressure on them.
The key to stopping Belgium’s front three- counterpress:
France have Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti at the back, two of the best defenders last season in club football. Varane is excellent in covering space and strong in 1v1 duels, something that is key if Belgium are to counterattack France in the game. However, 3v3 situations, whatever being the quality of the defenders at the back, do not hold well for the defending team against the quality of Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku. To ensure that such a situation does not arise, France need to counterpress efficiently, something they did very well in the second half against Uruguay.
Kante will once again hold the key here for France, as he shall be the one blocking the central channels that De Bruyne shall be playing in. His anticipation and ball winning capabilities, in addition to his dynamic mobility make him the perfect candidate for the role. Pogba has displayed great discipline so far this tournament in playing alongside him, but it is the third midfielder alongside them, Matuidi mostly, who returns back from his suspension, who shall be vital in providing the balance necessary to stifle Belgium.
The fact that Brazil were able to completely nullify Belgium’s build up in their own half by taking Witsel off the picture is a worrying sign for Martinez if they are not able to get a quick early goal. France will also be more cautious to Beligum’s approach now having seen their game against Brazil and will be ready with their plan. Deschamps has coached his side to a tactical victory over both Uruguay and Argentina, so his players know what is required of them within a tactical scheme and execute it to perfection.
Their defensive solidity so far, despite conceding three goals to Argentina, will hearten Deschamps and make them a tougher unit to score against than a Casemiro-less Brazil.
This promises to be one of the matches of the tournament again, at the least from a tactical perspective with the differing profiles of players on offer from both the sides. Roberto Martinez, for all his faults from a defensive standpoint, got his tactics right on the money against Brazil with regards to his attack. France will not have it easy against Belgium, but I still expect them to have enough defensive stability and quality in their forwards to see them through. The difference between both the sides lies in the midfield, with Belgium lacking a mobile ball winner like Kante and also sorely missing a transition passer in midfield like Pogba having pushed De Bruyne further forward.
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