France under-21s overcame England under-21s 2-1 in the 2019 Under-21 European Championships in a thrilling affair. Trailing 1-0 in the 88th minute, Les Bleuets thought they had snatched a late equaliser through Jonathan Ikone. Yet they soon went one better, with an Aaron Wan-Bissaka own goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time securing a dramatic victory.
Both teams operated in an identical 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 formation when out of possession, whilst England’s became more of a 4-3-3 when in possession.
France were denser and less spacious on the ball, with their wingers tucking in to produce two genuine banks of four. Whilst England replicated this when defending, they did look to open up and stretch the pitch when on the ball.
Expansive England Under-21 build from deep
Despite lining up in a 4-5-1 shape, when looking to start attacks England produced a back three with a central midfield pivot in Hamza Choudhury dropping alongside the central defenders, and both full-backs advancing up the pitch to offer width from a higher starting point.
The Leicester City man was always looking to receive the ball deep, whether from goalkeeper Dean Henderson or either of the central defenders and then start attacking moves from there, as can be seen below. In the following example, left-back Jay Da Silva is situated on the far touchline (as is Wan-Bissaka on the near side, out of shot) in order to maximise the horizontal space on the pitch and therefore create more space for Choudhury to operate within.
This method of attacking genesis was helped by France’s mid-block, as they opted to sit off the England defence and thus allow them to receive the ball pressure-free.
Their midfield was content to form a flat line of five in order to outnumber their opponents and be compact and therefore hard to play through. Both wide men were narrow, close to the central trio in order to close these passing lines and prevent line-breaking passes through the midfield, instead forcing England to play around them. It was the job of striker Moussa Dembele to be the lone frontman when out of possession, with the Lyon attacker retreating off the England backline to try and disrupt Choudhury’s ability to create from his deeper position.
Combination play out wide key to creativity
With James Maddison and Phil Foden – both extremely creative, attacking players – the widest of England’s central midfield three, it was always going to be the case that they looked to utilise their skill with the ball on the floor as opposed to gambling on them picking up second balls and knockdowns. As such, their relationship with those around them was key to England’s ability to create goal-scoring chances.
A key combination within England’s offensive armoury was between the full-back, ball-near central midfielder, and wide attacking midfielder. All three would react to the movements of the other two in order to drag around the France defenders and thus exploit the spaces created.
As can be seen in the forthcoming example, Maddison is the instigator of this move with his initial movement towards the ball. This then pulls two French midfielders with him, in turn opening a space for Demarai Gray to make a diagonal dart into. Finally, Gray’s movement in off the wing allows Wan-Bissaka to raid into the now-vacant space out wide.
These finely-tuned movements allowed England to create numerical superiority in-and-around the half-spaces, and therefore construct attacks easier.
Another such example below indicates a different kind of positional rotation to try and move the ball forward. Both Foden and left winger Ryan Sessegnon move towards the ball, consequently drawing out their markers. This move then, again, created space to isolate Da Silva on the touchline, and therefore make the pass out to the Chelsea full-back easier owing to his now-increased time and space.
Finally, England looked to make further decoy runs to deploy Foden’s superb ball-carrying skills from deep. Here, Sessegnon looks to run beyond the full-back to pull him deep and open up space for Foden to first receive the ball, and then drive at the French backline – and it was an instant such as this that led to England’s goal. The Manchester City man picked up the ball on the halfway line and beat several players before slotting home to round off a sublime move.
France look to combat Choudhury’s space
Such was 21-year-old Choudhury’s time and space on the ball, it led to Sylvain Ripoli changing his side’s tactics to try and stop the ball-player’s influence on the match.
They swapped their mid-block for a more aggressive option, looking to harangue and harass both Chowdhury and his defensive colleagues to stamp out any attacks in their infancy.
As witnessed below, three French attackers engaged the back three to put them under pressure and minimise their ability to manipulate the game. However, England’s desire to keep the ball meant that Foden dropped in as well to produce a 4v3, ensuring England maintained their numerical superiority.
The positioning of France’s offensive triumvirate, high against the two England central defenders, suggests that they were trying to entice Choudhury to go long by cutting off his options short.
Ten men finally succumb
Choudhury was dismissed in the 63rd minute due to a two-footed lunge in the penalty area, and his removal sparked an understandable change in tactics.
Upon his red card, Aidy Boothroyd altered his team to a 4-3-2/4-5-0 formation. They were content to allow France’s central defenders to step out with the ball and instead focused on trying to ensure they were not underloaded out wide with the rampaging French full-backs.
The loss of their defensive midfielder invited France on, and Ripoli’s outfit looked to capitalise on their numerical superiority in one of two ways: either one of their defenders stepping out and creating an overload in midfield; or their full-backs and wingers isolating the England full-backs and makeshift wingers in order to beat them in a one-versus-one situation (France’s opener came in such a manner).
Substitutes Jean-Phillipe Mateta and Marcus Thuram illustrated their dribbling ability, whilst Ikone, in particular, began to really demonstrate his pace, power, and trickery after the dismissal, drawing out Da Silva before consistently beating him to try and provide an equaliser. This endeavour was ultimately rewarded, with the Lille forward running at the left-back, cutting onto his left foot and burying an effort past Henderson.
England will no doubt feel hard done by to have lost the game in such a cruel manner. They were the better side until Choudhury’s dismissal, from when France took the game by the scruff of the neck, and it was only due to Henderson’s heroics in goal – in addition to a first-half penalty save – that France did not score sooner. Despite showing promising methods of attack, both teams could have been more incisive on the ball to try and show their offensive capabilities.
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