France have steadily improved as the tournament has progressed and are now starting to justify the hype surrounding their presence at Russia’s World Cup. They have kept three clean sheets from five matches and been largely untested thus far – even against powerful teams such as Argentina and Uruguay.
Didier Deschamps’ team proved to be comfortable when they let the opponents retain ball possession. When it happens, France is able to put their offensive threats – Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann – to play at their best in the situation they are more suited for: on counter attack.
Instead, when France were forced to control the game through possession, as they did against Uruguay, they faced trouble trying to provide their forwards with good chances.
In Twelve’s Leaderboard, setting by minutes, we can see Mbappé as second and Griezmann as the third most important player. In the case of PSG’s forward, he scored 6,618 points in 361 minutes played, at an average of 18.3 points per minute. Excellent level of the 19 year old player, who is ready to make the difference for the Bleus.
Atleti’s star man scored 6,937 points in 391 minutes, or 17.7 points per minute. A really good average for a very important piece on Deschamps’s tableau. Assists and chances created are the tools Griezmann offered to the team during this World Cup.
Against Belgium, an offensive, ball-oriented side built by Roberto Martínez, the French should let Eden Hazard and company run the show, trying to minimise their offensive power and being ready to throw fast and furious counter-attacks against the Belgian back-line.
In that case, two other players will have fundamental importance in France’s play model: Paul Pogba & N’Golo Kanté. Chelsea’s midfielder has been colossal thus far, and will need to continue in the same mould to stop a marauding Kevin De Bruyne. Paul Pogba will be key too, with his ability to link up play as well as spray the ball from midfield.
United’s midfielder has had a magnificent World Cup, with 6,958 points in 375 minutes. An average of 18.5 points per minute, the best of the team. Pogba has done great defensive work with clearances, tackles and winning duels. Off ball, he has been closing pass lines and pressuring the ball too. Always with his head up, Pogba is the guarantee of good football on the pitch.
Talking about guarantees, the true safeguard of France’s wall is the hard work of N’Golo Kante off ball. He leads Twelve’s board on that matter, and we will never get tired of watching how he dominates spaces and presses as no one other player in the world. Kante scored 1,753 points in 473 minutes on off ball actions, at an average of 3.7 per minute. It seems wispy numerically, but it is huge in football terms.
To avoid the fall of the Bastille: Defence!
Against Belgium, France will have to be able to build a strong defensive structure in order to handle De Bruyne and Hazard’s runs between the lines. A special role will need to be done by Kanté who will have to provide defensive support in front of the back-line acting as a holding midfielder. For a better control of the middle and of both the half-spaces, Deschamps could line up a three-man midfield with the comeback of Blaise Matuidi as left interior-midfielder.
Moving in between the lines, City’s star man De Bruyne is able to provide depth between tight defences, creating passing lines through his positioning. Should he play as a false nine again, De Bruyne showed his movement is capable of manipulating the opposition’s defensive structure, opening gaps for Mertens, Lukaku and Hazard to run in between.
The five best performers on defence are Varane, Pogba, Kanté and the full backs Hernández & Pavard.
Hernández was not the favourite to line up at the beginning of the tournament, but his good work during the World Cup gives him the authority to remain in the starting XI. On defence, he scored 1,758 points in 430 minutes, an average of 4.1 points per minute. The promising youngster Benjamin Pavard had the same trajectory, and today he is unquestionable. Pavard scored 1,712 points in 380 minutes, or 4.5 points per minute.
With Belgium generally putting a big emphasis on building out from the back and attacking with many players, Deschamps should instruct his team to absorb Belgian pressure with a solid defensive structure in order to be ready to play fast counter-attacks. That must be the rule of the match.
But also there is something about hierarchy, history and weight of the shirt. Those things matter in football, even more so in a World Cup. There’s a lot of rivalry between the French and Belgians, and we can not put away those psychological facts.
Saying all that, for sure it will be a match where the team who fails the less, will find the keys to overcome the other. The Frenchmen could rely on the high individual skills they have to get the game going to their side. Of course, Belgium might dominate the match with ball possession. Otherwise, everything is possible.