In what was the highlight of the U17 World Cup last year, France locked horns with Brazil for a place in the final. While the French cruised past through the knockout stages with glaring wins against Australia and Spain, the hosts had to fight hard against the likes of Chile and Italy to book their seat in the semifinal. Earlier, both sides topped their group winning every single one of their three group stage games.
The semifinal clash started with a flourish as Jean-Claude Giuntini’s men took a stellar two-goal lead in the first quarter of an hour. At half-time, it looked like the final won’t feature the host nation but everything changed in the 62nd minute. The Selecao striker–Kaio Jorge–nudged the ball past the keeper and all of a sudden, a comeback was on the charts.
What followed afterward was nothing short of a miracle. An equaliser from Gabriel Veron in the 75th minute and an 89th–minute strike from Lazaro sent the entire nation in jubilation as French heads hanged in shame.
Giuntini lined his side in their preferred 4–2–3–1 shape with two changes from the starting XI which desecrated Spain three days ago. Arnaud Kalimuendo Muinga and Enzo Millot were preferred over Georginio Rutter and Lucien Agoume.
Dalla Déa, on the other hand, opted for a 4–1–4–1 formation with Talles Costa sacrificed for Diego Rosa in the midfield. Veron, Jorge, Pedro Lucas, and Joan Peglow formed the attacking front while Daniel Cabral and Diego Rosa switched back and forth to strike a balance between defence and attack.
Phases of play
The game’s peculiar nature can be subdivided into three basic phases of play. Let us analyse each period separately.
France scored two goals (1′-14′)
The match started with both sides trying to match each other toe to toe but it was the French who came out on top. Les Bleus were successful in creating a flurry of attacks nullifying any sort of threat from the Brazilians on the counter.
The plan was clear— to press the opposition high up the pitch, suffocating them in their half winning the ball as close to the opposition goal as possible, forcing them into playing long balls rather than building from the back – something Brazil was much comfortable performing.
The last part also helped France control the game seeing they boasted superiority in the aerial duels section. In 24 duels challenged between both sides, the Blues managed to win 13 summing up 54% of the aerial challenges on the day.
To execute their plan, Giuntini’s men pressed in a 4–2–4 shape high up the pitch when out of possession. Let’s look at the image below to understand. Adil Aouchiche joins Muinga upfront to cut any passing lane into the midfield while Nathanael Mbuku and Isaac Lihadji closed down space from the wings.
This was highly effective against the likes of Brazil who were constant in their conviction of building from the back. Continuous loss of possession meant Brazil had to defend with men behind the ball rather than enjoying time and space on the ball. This was a major boost for the French as they saw their plan unfold.
As we can see here, nine Brazilians forced into defending behind the ball making sure they don’t enjoy the luxury of the ball at their feet.
This approach did mean open spaces in the French half but their high press ensured Brazil was coerced into playing it long, an area where France boasted superiority.
As we can see in the image above, France won the ball immediately which ultimately led to their first goal, thanks to a slick pass from Aouchiche and an excellent finish from Muinga.
Their second followed soon after, this time with a bit of luck and individual brilliance from Mbuku on the left flank.
Brazil equalised by scoring two (15′-76′)
A quick double in the first 14 minutes completely changed the complexion of the game. France shifted from its plan and resorted to a more conservative approach putting the onus on Brazil to take control of the game.
The Blues’ wingers retreated and they defended in a 4–4–2 shape when out of possession as compared to a 4-2-4 from earlier.
Brazil, meanwhile, upped the ante and took control of the game. Let’s look at the example below. The future Manchester City star and Patryck pushed high stretching the French backline and pinning their fullbacks in their defensive third while the wingers, Veron and Peglow moved inside occupying the half-spaces.
One of the midfielders – Cabral – dropped alongside the central defenders — Henri and Patrick, while Lucas dropped in midfield to help Rosa connect the defence and attack. This was the theme every time Brazil looked to build up from the back.
The change in plan paid dividends as the advancing left-back won the corner which ended in Brazil getting their breakthrough on the night. France wasted no time and in the 68th minute, Giuntini chose to sub out Muinga for a defensive midfielder – Johann Lepenant.
The move backfired as the pressure grew more than ever and the Selecao struck an equaliser in the 76th minute, thanks to a well-timed volley from Veron.
After Brazil equalised (77′-90′)
As the chaos ensued, France decided to restore the order and subbed in Haissem Hassan, a striker for one of the central midfielders, Millot. The nightmare was completed when the hosts, who were brimming with confidence, struck a third with a minute of regulation time to play.
A slight misjudgment from the French resulted in Lazaro sneaking in behind their defensive line and keeper – Melvin Zinga, only made matters worse when he was beaten on his near post.
Attacking patterns, average positions, and PPDA
As we can see from the graph, the majority of attacks for both sides were carried out from the flanks. In Brazil’s case, it’s the right-hand side of Couto and Veron while for France, Pembele and Mbuku wreaked havoc on the opposition from the left.
It’s also worth noting that the French did conjure up most of their xG – 73% of their total xG – from the same flank which saw most of their attacks. The hosts, meanwhile, made the best chances from the middle – 85% of their total xG, and only 15% from the right flank.
Let’s look at an example below. As we have already mentioned how France scored their second on the night with excellent play from Pembele and Mbuku on the left flank. It must be highlighted that they were a constant threat throughout the 90 minutes.
In the image above we can see Pembele advancing high up the pitch and delivers a low cross in the path of the Ligue 1 star, Mbuku. The number 11 tries a first time shot and fires the ball off-target. This was a warning for the things to come and Brazil found it hard to control them throughout the 90 minutes.
Now we will look at the average position of both sets of players throughout the game. Pembele (number 3) can be seen over the halfway line while Mbuku, Aouchiche, Muinga, and Lihadji forming a four-man attack.
Similarly with Brazil’s graph, we can note Couto (number 2) and Patryck (number 6) finding themselves near the halfway line. Veron (number 7) and Peglow (number 10) are in half spaces while Cabral (number 5) is found in his half aiding the central defenders.
Moving on to the PPDA (passes per defensive action), we can see the drop in the French pressing levels after their second goal as they chose to sit back preserving their two-goal advantage. They did, however, improve on their pressing in the second 45.
Brazil, meanwhile, were consistent with their high press from the start and maintained consistent efficient pressure on their opponents throughout the game. The energy levels did take a hit in the second half but in the end, it proved to be enough to take them over the finish line.
French chances squandered
It’s safe to say that Les Bleus had enough chances to put the game to bed at every phase of the game from the scoreline at 2–0 to 2–1 to 2–2. They have only themselves to blame to allow Brazil back into the game as they kept missing their opportunities.
Let’s take a look at some of the key examples. In the image below, we can see Muinga has found himself in a favourable position to either score the third or linkup with Aouchiche who is in loads of space on his side. The situation got the better of him as Muinga blazed the ball over the crossbar leaving the Paris St. Germain youngster frustrated.
This is probably the easiest and one of the most important goals Lihadji would have scored in his life. An open net to book his side a place in the World Cup final but he hits the post from inside the six-yard box and Brazil lived through another moment which would have knocked them out of the final.
Last and the most significant one as just moments after this, Brazil went onto the other end to reduce the deficit to one goal. Muinga and Aouchiche once again amid it all and once again its Aouchiche who is left frustrated at the end of it.
The number 10, Aouchiche, sends Muinga one-on-one with the defender with a beautiful through ball but the striker fails to get it under control, thanks to his poor judgment, and the ball rolls away from him.
As we have seen so often in football that no lead is safe over the course of 90 minutes, the Blues seemed to forget this somehow. Their xG total of 0.79 as compared to 1.22 of Brazil did do justice to the scoreline at the end.
One must wonder what would have been the result if Giuntini’s men hadn’t deviated from their original style of play. Brazil, on the other hand, pulled off something remarkable with a little bit of luck on their side and provided the fans with the game of the tournament.