While it is foolish to read too much into friendly results, especially with both sides missing key players, Brazil’s visit to the Stade de France last night provided for some compelling viewing and should give both managers much to think about. With the hosts missing Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Hugo Lloris, as well as Mathieu Debuchy, and Brazil without the Paris Saint-Germain trio of David Luiz, Marquinhos and Lucas Moura, injuries limited both teams’ overall effectiveness, even as both Dunga and Didier Deschamps sought to achieve continuity by using their preferred formations. France, as hosts of Euro 2016, won’t play a competitive match until next year, and while Brazil do have the Copa America in a few months, the bottom line from this encounter seemed to be to encourage familiarity, trying out different players in a fixed system, as no changes were made until deep into the second half, Brazil already 3-1 up.
France 1-3 Brazil
France: 16. Mandanda // 15. Sagna, 4. Varane, 5. Sakho, 3. Evra // 18. Sissoko, 22. Schneiderlin, 14. Matuidi // 8. Valbuena, 10. Benzema, 11. Griezmann
Brazil: 1. Jefferson // 2. Danilo, 3. Miranda, 14. Silva, 6. Luis // 8. Elias, 17. Gustavo // 19. Willian, 10. Neymar, 11. Oscar // 18. Firmino
France’s midfield fail to be an impetus in attack
The hosts lined up in the 4-3-3 that has been their hallmark since the World Cup, with Mathieu Valbuena, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann playing up top. Absent Pogba, Morgan Schneiderlin started at the base of midfield, with Blaise Matuidi to the left and Moussa Sissoko to the right. From the beginning, even as France seemed overly anxious getting forward, their defense looked fairly solid. Schneiderlin looked an able (if overly conservative) deputy, dropping between the central defenders, Varane and Sakho, to cope with Neymar, as well as aiding in closing down the wide areas, covering for the forward runs of Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna. As defensively sound as the Southampton man was, he did seem to just go off the boil in the second half, and moreover showed himself to be lacking the dynamism of Pogba, whose direct style is more attack-minded and effective in linking with the front three.
Facilitating some sort of connection between the front three and midfield was thus down to Matuidi and Sissoko, and while Matuidi was disappointingly anonymous, the Newcastle man didn’t hesitate to seize his chance. While Pogba, when fit, will of course regain his place in the starting eleven, given Cabaye’s struggles with injuries and form for PSG, Sissoko did everything in his power to stake a similar claim. While Matuidi contributed little going forward, time and again Sissoko picked the ball up from Schneiderlin or one of the defenders and did his best to run at the Brazilian back line, hoping to link with Benzema or find Valbuena wide on the right. Not all of these runs came off, as he was sometimes too easily dispossessed, or was found wanting in his final pass. In the absence of any other offensive impetus from the three, though, it was always going to be a struggle for France in attack and little wonder that their best opportunities were generally from set pieces.
French forwards on different wavelengths
Further forward, the front three buzzed around, full of energy but they were largely disappointing. Trying to create confusion in the Brazilian defense by constantly switching positions, it wasn’t uncommon throughout the match to see Valbuena popping up on the left, Griezmann cutting inside to be a de facto false nine, and Benzema moving to the wing, the full-backs joining in to add an extra option in the pass. While Valbuena, having only recently returned to action with his club, did look fairly bright, especially with his set piece deliveries, Benzema was guilty of spurning several good chances, and despite being denied by a superb save by Jefferson, should’ve found his name on the scoresheet one way or another. Griezmann, though, was perhaps more of a letdown. Having a decent season at club level for Atletico Madrid, the winger is another player who, like Benzema, has yet to demonstrate consistent excellence for Les Bleus. With the Atletico player often drifting inside when Valbuena moved to the left wing, Griezmann and Benzema rarely seemed to be on the same wavelength, too often occupying the same position on the pitch and failing to link with each other in possession. On the night, France weren’t awful, but too many players seemed to have an overly casual attitude, even in light of the absence of any meaningful stakes.
Dunga opts for a 4-2-3-1 , despite it being mildly effective in the World Cup
Brazil, for their part, continued to look the rejuvenated side that has seen them win seven matches in a row in the aftermath of their embarrassing World Cup exit. Patient in possession where France were over-eager, Dunga used the same 4-2-3-1 that Luiz Felipe Scolari had favored at the World Cup, with Elias in for the injured David Luiz and Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino replacing Fred in the false nine role. With Oscar and Willian on the wings, there was more than a bit of Chelsea about the way that Brazil played, as both worked hard to track back and aid their fullbacks, cutting inside when necessary to allow them forward, but also pressing the touchline hard when defending. Not only that, but Oscar in particular was very impressive in coming deep to receive the ball, allowing that aforementioned patience on the ball to develop as best as possible.
Through the middle, Brazil were somewhat less successful, with Firmino looking uncomfortable as a false nine. Being physically and positionally really more of a no. 10 than a 9, the Hoffenheim man struggled to facilitate the attack or create space against the bulky trio of Sakho, Varane and Schneiderlin. While his layoff for Oscar was impressive in the build-up to the winger’s equalizer on 40 minutes, one has the sense that a more physical presence might suit Brazil a little bit better here. With Luiz Adriano enjoying a strong season so far, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Shakhtar man supplant Firmino in the friendly against Chile on Sunday. His partner in attack, Neymar, was also somewhat frustrating on the evening. Playing more centrally than he does for Barcelona, finding space in that area was generally a struggle, but with Oscar, Willian and the fullbacks doing well in wide areas, there wasn’t generally room for the former Santos player. When he was able to cut inside, he showed how dangerous he can be, doing well to beat Mandanda at his near post for his team’s second, but his relationship with Firmino (or another forward) still needs work for his play to reach the highest level possible.
Brazil’s holding pair and full-backs with a solid performance
With the holding pair of Luis Gustavo and the unheralded Elias doing well on the evening, Gustavo even scoring a fine goal, a look at O Selecao’s defense should complete this overview. While Roberto Miranda hasn’t been the player for Atletico Madrid that we saw last year, with Marquinhos and David Luiz injured and Arsenal’s Gabriel Paulista uncapped, he was always going to be the best option to slot in next to Thiago Silva on the former captain’s return from injury, and despite losing Varane for the opener, joined the PSG man in having a relatively solid game. Likewise Filipe Luis, who got forward at will, stretching play and tormenting Bacary Sagna down the touchline. Across the pitch,Porto’s Danilo is another player who, like Luis, isn’t exactly a prospect, but has yet to feature extensively for Brazil, but he looked assured at right back, a conservative alternative to the attacking verve of Dani Alves or Maicon. While he did get forward at times, his judicious approach to the match gave the side more balance and defensive solidity than it has often had in the past, an importance which can’t be understated post-World Cup.
As previously stated, these are only friendly matches, and not too much can be read into them, but, having parsed the general tactical course of the match, it is still a worthwhile exercise to see how both teams might move on from the result, both in terms of personnel and system. While neither team seems likely to move from these formations, which will certainly get the best out of a fully fit side, might each manager try something a bit different on Sunday?
For France, the two substitutes who had a chance to make a mark on the match looked fairly bright, and should perhaps have that opportunity from the off against Denmark. On for the ineffective Griezmann, Lyon’s Nabil Fekir operated on the right, moving wider after the introduction of Olivier Giroud, but looked a real terror with the ball at his feet. While nothing that he did resulted in a goal, it was clear that he caused some nerves for Brazil, repeatedly drawing fouls and pulling players out of position. With Valbuena comfortable on either wing, and Benzema having a poor showing, perhaps Deschamps might elect to pick Fekir, one of Giroud or Alexandre Lacazette and the Dynamo Moscow man as his front three come Sunday. The other youngster starting to bed into the side who got a decent run-out was Monaco’s Geoffrey Kondogbia, who replaced Sissoko on 74 minutes. Like the man he replaced, Kondogbia looked to get forward with the ball at his feet, and was generally more successful in doing so, playing the Pogba role with aplomb.
The third player who might feel aggrieved at not having received a chance is Fekir’s Lyon teammate, Christophe Jallet. A regular in the last round of friendlies, Jallet offers a more balanced approach than Sagna at right back. While the former PSG man is deft at getting forward with the ball, he is also a superb defender, rarely beaten for pace and elegant in the tackle. With Sagna having failed to track the run of Neymar for his goal, the Manchester City player too often looked every bit of his 32 years, especially with Filipe Luis growing into the match in the second half. With Jallet continuing to perform well for Lyon, and Sagna below par, a change at right back for Sunday should likewise be on Deschamps’ agenda.
The Brazilian squad, despite the odd mistake, generally played well, and while Dunga will likely make some changes, they will be more down to simple rotation than under-performance. With Coutinho not seeing the pitch last night, he and Paulista should make a strong case for inclusion, as will Marcelo at left back and Adriano up top. Beyond that, it is hard to see much in the way of changes, as these are Brazil’s penultimate friendlies before the Copa America, and Dunga will be wanting to shape a consistent eleven with an eye on that tournament. Based on the evening’s evidence, he is much closer to success in this regard than his French counterpart.
Written by Eric Devin