Drawing “big picture” conclusions from friendlies, especially after a long and gruelling European campaign, can often be an exercise in futility. This is doubly true with top teams such as Belgium and France, most of whose players were involved in additional 10-20 matches in lengthy European and cup campaigns. With key players such as Paul Pogba, Patrice Evra, Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany and Kevin de Bruyne missing from both sides, one might have hoped that rather than playing for the result, both teams might be given to a bit of experimentation on the day, with a chance to see some new faces or perhaps a bit of tactical innovation. After all, despite France being qualified as hosts of Euro 2016 and Belgium topping their group, neither have been as scintillating as one might expect.
FRANCE 3-4 BELGIUM
France (4-3-3): Lloris; Sagna, Varane, Koscielny, Tremoulinas; Sissoko, Cabaye, Matuidi; Valbuena, Giroud, Griezmann
Belgium(4-1-4-1): Courtois; Alderweireld, Denayer, Lombaerts, Vertonghen; Nainggolan; Mertens, Witsel, Fellaini, Hazard; Benteke
Belgium lead Group B, level on points with Wales ahead of a trip to Cardiff on Friday, and looking at the table, one would feel good about their chances of qualifying automatically, justifying their current ranking of 2nd in the world. However, there is more to the performance of Marc Wilmots’ sides than can be gleaned from a casual glance at points earned, especially as Bosnia have unexpectedly stumbled after easily qualifying for the World Cup. Not only benefiting from the malaise of a side that, on form, likely would’ve been their toughest competition in an otherwise middling group, Belgium have struggled to break down the opposition. While 15 goals in five matches played seems a fine return, in their matches at home to Wales and away to Bosnia and Israel, Belgium have been profligate, netting only twice. There were similar issues at the World Cup, and the hope was that the return of Christian Benteke, absent last summer, could spur the Red Devils on in attack. Things haven’t gone exactly to plan, and Belgium seemed in need of some creative impetus.
France, for their part, are, despite a wealth of young talent on the rise, decidedly a team in transition, and trying to figure out their best eleven has proved tricky. Players like Patrice Evra, Bacary Sagna and Yohan Cabaye will all be on the wrong side of thirty come next summer, and will be similarly taxed by European campaigns, their ageing bodies ill-suited for a high-pressure tournament situation, yet they have continued to feature extensively. Admittedly, Evra probably deserves his place on merit, especially given Benoit Tremoulinas’ struggles defending on the evening, but the general reluctance of Didier Deschamps in this department has been a real problem, especially further forward. Despite the bevy of young attacking talent, the manager’s overly cautious team selections have hamstrung the development of many of these players, as even friendlies such as this one have seen overly predictable/veteran-heavy lineups. Deploying the likes of Cabaye, Blaise Maituidi and Moussa Sissoko over youngsters like (supposedly injured) Kurt Zouma and Josuha Guilavogui doesn’t seem the most progressive, especially with nothing to lose. While the recent initial call-ups of Nabil Fekir, Geoffrey Kondogbia (who missed this match for the birth of his son) and now Paul-Georges Ntep may give some indication of a shift in philosophy on Deschamps’ part, their spotty inclusion on the pitch is indicative of a reticence to truly trust these types of prospects.
What surprise, then, as we were treated to a 4-3 thriller, Belgium getting off the mark early doors thanks to a measured approach to their attack, their fullbacks and central midfielders becoming unlikely sources for goals. Just as surprising was Deschamps decision to take a roll of the dice and give Fekir, Ntep and Dimitri Payet more than lip service in terms of playing time. The decision paid off splendidly, as the trio combined with fellow substitute Alexandre Lacazette to provide two goals among a host of chances for France in their brief time together on the pitch. With another friendly against Albania soon to come, Deschamps will have much to ponder, as, like his counterpart Wilmots, the match was littered with positives and negatives for both sides.
While it is unlikely that Belgium will use this particular 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 again, particularly with Kevin de Bruyne available, the potential for goals it represents is impressive. With the Wolfsburg playmaker unavailable, rather than use a traditional no. 10, Wilmots opted to use Radja Nainggolan as a shield for the back four, freeing up the similarly physical, if a bit more gifted offensively, Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel further up the pitch. All three did what was asked of them to perfection; Nainggolan played the role of sweeper, facilitating the attack with long balls and drifting wide to provide cover for the full backs when they got forward. Witsel likewise covered quite a bit of ground, shackling Blaise Matuidi and forcing France’s most dangerous player in the first half, Mathieu Valbuena, to the opposite side of the pitch in what were often futile attempts to find space. Also, with Nainggolan being more of a goal threat than the Zenit man, Witsel would often drop deep to allow the Roma player to make to the odd forward run. Nainggolan’s goal on 50 minutes was simply superb, but could just have easily gone awry had the Roma player been dispossessed, given the pace of the likes of Antoine Griezmann on the counter attack. With the confidence to get forward knowing that Witsel would track back to cover any potential blushes, Nainggolan was able to conjure the perfect blend of attack and defense on the night.
It was Belgium’s other curly-haired midfielder, however, who was the star of the show. As the image of Nainggolan shooting shows, Belgium’s midfield three moved with tremendous fluidity, changing roles at will to confound their opposite numbers, particularly at the time when France struggled to adapt to the introductions of Payet and Lacazette at the half. Despite providing cover in the above instance, Fellaini was generally the furthest forward, acting as somewhat of a second striker. No stranger to the position and success in it, as his return of 11 goals in the 2012-13 Premier League season demonstrated, the former Everton player has been an unexpected source of goals in the calendar year; his brace against France marked his fifth goal in just three appearances in 2015 for the Red Devils. With the season that de Bruyne has had in Germany, he has made himself a strong case for inclusion, but with Fellaini in this kind of form centrally, his role may be in wider areas.
Not that Belgium’s play in wide areas was anything to sniff at, either. Neither Jan Vertonghen or Toby Alderweireld fit neatly into the idea of the modern attacking fullback: a pint-size auxiliary winger racing up the touchline, abandoning his defensive duties to join in the attack. Indeed, despite being fullbacks for their country, both are generally used as center backs at their clubs, their physicality well-suited to the rigors of the Premier League. That said, each demonstrated on the night that a player need not be an archetype to succeed in a given role. Despite Vertonghen having a solid evening, Alderweireld was the better of the two, providing an inch-perfect cross for Fellaini’s second and continually frustrating Benoit Tremoulinas, who was unable to provide any sort of threat, despite continued runs deep into Belgium’s half. Too easily shrugged off the ball by the imposing Alderweireld, Tremoulinas, so impressive for Sevilla and in the last round of internationals, was all but an afterthought, his struggles demonstrating with little uncertainty the need for 34 year old Patrice Evra.
Further forward, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens had understated yet effective performances. Nominally deployed as wingers, both tended to cut inside, with Hazard often drifting past the center of the pitch to overload France’s left wing. With both wingers more than adept with the ball at their feet, the overload left Les Bleus‘ midfield struggling to cope for pace as the two moved to create outlets for each other and release striker Christian Benteke into space. While the Aston Villa player failed to find the back of the net, he did provide a spirited outlet for the attack, forcing a fine save from Hugo Lloris midway through the first half, his talent acknowledged by the close marking of Laurent Koscielny and Raphael Varane.
Despite a few spirited forays forward from Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, none of the substitutes made much of an impact, aside from Romelu Lukaku striking the bar shortly after his introduction. With Vincent Kompany due to return from a red card suspension and youngster Jason Denayer having impressed in his stead, the performance was just about complete for Belgium, despite the two late goals. Without an over-reliance on any one particular player or method of attack, the team, delivered the type of cohesive, intent offensive performance that they have been sorely lacking over the last year or so. While it remains to be seen how Kevin de Bruyne might fit into this formation, if Belgium can continue in this manner, one may have to grudgingly admit that perhaps they are not totally undeserving of their lofty FIFA ranking.
As for France, while the result was far from the catastrophe that seemed on the cards ten minutes from time, the scoreline flatters the hosts’ performance in no uncertain terms. Didier Deschamps once again set out his trusted 4-3-3, with Juventus players Paul Pogba and Patrice Evra missing owing to the previous day’s Champions’ League final. In Pogba’s place, Yohan Cabaye was employed at the base of midfield, while Benoit Tremoulinas took up at left back. With Karim Benzema missing due a thigh injury, Olivier Giroud started up top, but, despite the bright play of Fekir, Lacazette and Payet in the last pair of matches, the personnel was as by the book as one would expect.
While the formation and the personnel did a creditable job against Brazil and Denmark in March, the absences of Pogba and Evra proved too much to overcome. At left back, Tremoulinas did his best to get forward, and while he often found himself in dangerous areas of the pitch, his final ball was often lacking, completing only 2 of 11 attempted crosses. Combine this woeful record with a horrendous two-footed challenge on Mertens, and it is quite clear why Evra, despite his age, his still the answer for France at left back, with Tremoulinas lacking the consistency and fellow left backs Layvin Kurzawa and Lucas Digne the maturity. As poorly as Tremoulinas did, however, his performance sparkled when compared to Yohan Cabaye’s.
While Cabaye had sometimes occupied the deepest role in a midfield three for Paris Saint-Germain this year, that was only down to injury as he struggled for form, never close to Laurent Blanc’s first choice eleven. Lacking either the pace to deal with Mertens and Hazard or the strength to cope with any of Witsel, Fellaini or Nainggolan, Cabaye was consistently overrun, contributing nothing in attack and generally failing to track the runs of Belgium’s midfielders. Sitting deep and waiting for the Belgian attack to come to him, Cabaye’s positional conservatism nearly cost his team dearly in the first half as he scythed down Hazard with the Chelsea player through on goal. Continually playing too close to his defense and inviting pressure on to them, Cabaye avoided a red card, but it is clear that he lacks the positional awareness and physical attributes to be even a stop-gap solution in holding midfield.
With options such as Morgan Schneiderlin (missing with a knee injury) and Kondogbia also able deputies, would not a pair of safe hands of the likes of Maxime Gonalons have made more sense? Assured all season for Lyon, Gonalons has the right balance of passing nous and tackling ability to hold down the defensive midfield role absent the other three, and is, unlike Cabaye, still relatively young at 26. Admittedly Pogba is, like Cabaye, not a purely defensive midfielder, but his pace and ability on the ball have the added benefit of keeping opposing midfields honest, making his inclusion as the deepest-lying midfielder a much more sensible one. With one of Pogba or Kondogbia likely to start against Albania, we have hopefully seen the last of Cabaye in this role.
Elsewhere on the pitch, France’s other two midfielders, Blaise Matuidi and Moussa Sissoko performed decently well in the first half, Sissoko in particular pressing forward with the ball at his feet on several occasions. While the Newcastle player should be lauded for his enterprise in attack, this also had the knock-on effect of leaving Fellaini either unmarked or minded by Cabaye, both equally dangerous propositions. Despite the odd defensive failing, Sissoko was generally assured in the tackle and going forward, and looks closer to occupying this role full time. With Sissoko bombing on, Matuidi ended up taking a more defensive role, especially with France’s tactical switch at half time.
Desperate to reinvigorate a side that had showed little to nothing going forward, Deschamps broke character at the intermission by introducing Lacazette and Payet for Antoine Griezmann and Cabaye. To that point, despite Mathieu Valbuena’s best efforts, France’s front three looked adrift. Usually, with Karim Benzema as a striker, the attacking players in Deschamps’ 4-3-3 are quite mobile, moving easily to different areas of the pitch to facilitate an overload or to play a series of short, rapid passing moves. However, with Olivier Giroud in place of the Real Madrid man, little was coming off for the hosts. Giroud’s more static tendencies made him stick out like a sore thumb amongst the bustle of the rest of his teammates, doing little to make himself available or to track the runs of the likes of Nainggolan and Denayer, the latter of whom got forward far too easily for a 19-year-old center back making his full debut.
Griezmann was, incredibly, perhaps even more culpable than the Arsenal man, showing little desire to track the runs of Belgium’s fullbacks, or indeed even to move into space to offer an outlet for the runs of Sissoko and Valbuena. The handful of times the Atletico Madrid winger did have the ball, usually on the left after having switched with Valbuena, he dawdled on it, unsure whether to lay the ball off or try to pick out Giroud with a cross. While perhaps more time on the training pitch could create a more unified approach from this particular trio, on the night, the results were less than inspiring.
Thus, Deschamps moved to a 4-2-3-1, with Payet occupying the no. 10 role, Giroud retaining his place up top, and Lacazette playing on the right wing. Sissoko and Matuidi would then drop into more defined holding roles. While meant to shake up the attack, the immediate results were disastrous as Belgium quickly added two more goals to a French penalty to make the match 4-1. Unfamiliar with playing together as a double pivot, a lack of communication between Matuidi and Sissoko led to Nainggolan’s goal as well as to an even more dangerous team move some ten minutes later.
With Tremoulinas attempting to make a throw-in, both midfielders failed to make themselves targets, forcing the left back to go up the pitch to Valbuena. When Valbuena was dispossessed by Ferreira-Carrasco, neither player tracked the Monaco man’s run, nor that of Eden Hazard, who received a pass from the winger and played it back across goal, only for Lukaku to strike the underside of the bar. With the embarrassment of having conceded a fifth goal gone, the two slowly reached more of an understanding as the match wore on, but how much of that is down to their coming to terms with the position versus Belgium perhaps easing back a little ahead of an important qualifier is anyone’s guess.
Despite some enterprising play from Payet, France still looked far from reducing the deficit until the introductions of Fekir and Ntep. Fekir replaced Valbuena on 73 minutes and, employed on the right, with Lacazette switching wings, did well to run at the tiring Belgian defense. Things looked brighter, but despite Olivier Giroud firing just wide after taking down a long ball, things didn’t really heat up for France until Ntep replaced Giroud with ten minutes to play. Sitting on the left wing, with Lacazette now the striker, the Rennes player was the key to a suddenly rejuvenated France attack, all four attacking players flooding the box, scoring seemingly at will.
How much of a fight Belgium were really putting up must of course be considered, but the dynamism of the four echoed the best phases of attacking football that Lyon and Marseille showed this year.With both wingers threatening to score or pass while cutting inside, their pace and ability on the ball making them dangerous propositions and a strong yet mobile striker in Lacazette pulling defenders out of position, might Deschamps have seen enough to give this system another try? Even with Benzema and Pogba returning, Lacazette would be replaced by the Real Madrid man, and Pogba could be one of the “defensive” midfielders, alongside a Kondogbia or a Schneiderlin. With the front four employed in roles similar to those at their clubs, the best use of their talent would be made, if perhaps leaving the defense a bit exposed were Pogba to be slack in tracking back.
Of course, beyond any tactical ramifications for the immediate future, those of us who follow France closely will know that old habits die hard for Deschamps, and the prospect of him excluding a healthy Maitudi from the side makes this transition unlikely, particularly as this marks an exceptionally rare move away from the 4-3-3. That said, with victory likely in any event against Albania, might Payet and this youthful front three not deserve a bit more time on the pitch together? Only time will tell, but perhaps those last ten minutes, more than just making a respectable score line, will have given Deschamps food for thought.
Written by Eric Devin