James Sutherland writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Euro 2016 quarter final that ended France 5-2 Iceland.
The sharks meet the minnows, David meets Goliath, underdog meets the host nation. Of the quarter finals, this was certainly the matchup with a greater disparity. France, a football powerhouse, facing Iceland, in their first major tournament. Although many thought that Iceland had an outside chance to keep their fairy tale alive, France crushed those dreams. It was a dominant performance from the French from start to finish.
Iceland (4-4-2): 1. Halldorsson; 23. Skulason, 6. Sigurdsson, 14. Arnason, 2. Saevarsson; 8. Bjarnson, 10. Sigurdson, 17. Gunnarson, 7. Gudmundsson; 15. Bodvarsson, 9. Sigthorsson
France (4-2-3-1): 1. Lloris; 3. Evra, 21. Koscielny, 22. Umtiti, 19. Sagna; 14. Matiudi, 15. Pogba; 8. Payet, 7. Griezmann, 18. Sissoko; 9. Giroud
Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson had the blessing of fielding the same XI that qualified Iceland for the Euros, then got them out of the group, then beat England in the Round of 16. However fatigue played a role in Iceland’s collapse, the result of little rotation by the Icelandic coaches.
Didier Deschamps, on the other hand, had to replace Adil Rami and N’Golo Kante, both suspended from yellow card accumulation. Samuel Umtiti came in from Rami, while Moussa Sissoko replaced Kante. Given Kante’s importance to France’s defense, as a holding midfielder, and as the only outright pivot on France’s roster, there were major questions on how France’s midfielders would cope.
Although France was listed as a 4-2-3-1, they defended in a 4-4-2, and attacked in a variety of fluid formations.
Iceland’s Defensive Issues
The most disastrous mistake a defense can make is combining a high defensive line with little or no ball pressure. The risk of leaving lots of room behind a defense is compounded by allowing the offense time and space (it’s even worse if there are compactness issues to boot) to hit long passes over, around and through the back line. Teams that defend like this get caught out often in midfield, where a superior team can manipulate the defense’s formation to clear space for runners in behind.
That is exactly what France did to Iceland. Although Iceland has been praised by the media for their “defensive solidity” through the tournament, this game dispelled those notions. Iceland’s 4-4-2 pushed high up the field, and yet their strikers and midfielders put no pressure on the ball. Although France’s centerbacks, Koscielny and Umtiti, weren’t the most effective at exploiting this, Matuidi and Pogba in midfield did exploit the vulnerabilities, to devastating effect. They were able to pick out numerous passes for France’s attackers running behind Iceland’s exposed defense.
In this picture, from France’s first goal, you can see Iceland’s problems clearly. Matuidi has the ball in the half space, with no one putting pressure on him. Griezmann and Payet have overloaded the half space, while Payet’s run towards the ball off the backline has drawn out one of Iceland’s centerbacks. This leaves space behind for Giroud to run into. If Iceland had been pressuring Matuidi, however, he would not have had the time or vision to pick out the through ball.
Above Iceland’s defenders are completely reactive, in midfield and defense. They are ball watching, and Giroud’s smart run catches them out. With no pressure, Matuidi is easily able to find him with a lob.
Pogba thrived especially in this environment. One of the top midfielders and passers in the world, he often found himself like Matidui in the center or half spaces, with time and options to pass.
Pogba here has the ball, with neither of Iceland’s strikers making a move to pressure him. To compound the issue, they are too far apart, allowing him an easy passing lane to either half space and vertically in the center. He makes a diagonal pass to Matuidi, who then has Payet and Sissoko nearby to combine with. Also note the 4 v. 2 France has built in the center of the field. They were very successful in leveraging these overloads in the center and half spaces into opportunities to combine.
Once again Pogba exploits Iceland’s lack of pressure and compactness. Here Iceland has left the center of the field wide open, and he picks out a simple through ball for Griezmann, which Giroud touches on. The ball literally rolls by three lines of Icelandic defenders, but none react to stop it.
France’s Positional Freedom
Seizing on Iceland’s defensive concerns, France displayed remarkable positional fluidity and freedom throughout the match. Payet and Griezmann were given especially free roles, drifting around the pitch to stay in connection with the midfield.
There you can see a glimpse of the freedom with which France played. Payet, nominally the left winger, has drifted over to the right halfspace, with Griezmann in the center and Pogba deeper in the half space. There are several overloads here, most notably the 2 v. 1 that allows Sissoko to play a one two and cut down the wing. France has also created a qualitative overload, with Payet, Sissoko and Sagna against 3 Icelandic defenders.
Once again France have overloaded the wing and half space. Here Griezmann, Sissoko and Sagna are defended by two Icelandic players. Meanwhile Iceland’s striker is slow to close down Pogba, who is able to find Griezmann with a diagonal pass, cutting through two lines of Iceland’s defense. Griezmann is easily able to combine with Sissoko and the other supporting midfielders.
Stevie Grevie’s graphic shows the common movements France made to overload Iceland and manipulate their structure. Sissoko and Payet would drop off the wings, while either Giroud or Griezmann would drop back off the front line. This overloaded the midfielder, forcing a defender to step out, leaving space behind, as we saw with France’s first goal.
France Kills Iceland’s Offense
Iceland has relied in this tournament on two things for offense: the long ball and Gylfi Sigurdsson. France was able to cut off both options, leaving Iceland with little hope of scoring.
Deschamps did not decide to press Iceland high up the field, instead dropping back and allowing Iceland’s centerbacks time on the ball. Although this seems foolish against a team that wants it’s centerbacks to make long passes, since France was sitting deep and compact, there was nowhere to play a long ball too. Furthermore, France controlled the center, cutting off access to Sigurdsson, leaving Iceland to shuffle the ball between their centerbacks.
Here you can see those issues. There is nowhere for Iceland’s centerbacks to hit a long ball too, and there are no midfield connections with which to move the ball up the field.
Deschamps was also worried about Iceland’s ability to score off long throw-ins. As you can see below, when Iceland had a thrown in deep in France’s half, France packed it in, with the two strikers dropping behind the midfielders, creating a deep 4-2-4.
Iceland still found success off throw-ins, though, and it was their only avenue of offense for much of the game.
This game was over by halftime, especially after France’s two late first half goals. Although Iceland was able to pull two goals back, the result was never in doubt, and France cruised to the finish. This was the sort of dominant performance that fans and pundits had been demanding from France, and they looked like world champions. However, they will be facing the actual world champions, Germany, in the semi-final, and it will be the first real test of their strength. Their backline still showed some issues, and although the two goals came in garbage time, France fans have reason to worry about a backline that gives up two to Iceland.
Iceland, on the other hand, can go home proud of themselves. Although they were absolutely annihilated in this game, no one expected anything of them at this tournament. Congrats to one of the best storylines of the year.
Written by James Sutherland
James is a Chelsea fan, and has written about the Premier League, Champions League and Internationals.
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