France and fencing on the run

France has done just enough to sneak by every opponent thus far, earning all but one of their five wins by one goal. They come into the final against Croatia as heavy favorites, however this will be a cautious game between two teams keen to avoid risks, both looking to grind the other down via their respective world-class central midfields.

I’ll compare the players who, for me, will have particular clashes between them and the results will determine the progress of the match.

For that reason, the head-to-head between Luka Modric and N’Golo Kante – the tournament’s two most impressive players – should define the World Cup final, both tactically and symbolically. Kante’s role is extremely important given Paul Pogba’s tendency to drift and Blaise Matuidi’s need to close down on the left wing, and the Chelsea midfielder certainly won’t choke; he has made more ball recoveries (48) and interceptions (19) than any other player at the World Cup.

On Twelve’s chart for Modric in attack, we can see where he created his best actions with the ball. Good passes and chances created around the 18 yard box. Also good long balls from behind the centre spot line.

The work off ball by Kante show us his amazing work all over the midfield, but his more important actions were behind the centre spot line. He scored 1,942 points in 569 minutes, making him the best scorer between both teams in those actions.

So if France wants to stop Luka Modric, maybe it won’t be with Kante’s regular work by himself, but a combined job with Paul Pogba on covering the sectors where Modric usually works with the ball.

In off ball actions, Pogba scored 1,289 points in 471 minutes. He is not as intense as Kante on that matter, but had a better performance on defence actions, where he is the fourth best player between both teams with 3,437 points and an average of 7.2 points per minute.

And more importantly than that, it’s the fact Pogba likes to recover balls in the opposition half, giving France the chance to surprise Croatia on it’s more dangerous resource: the counter attack.

Full backs against diagonal long balls

Such a studied, midfield-heavy match will be won by one moment of quality or one lapse in concentration; a miniscule margin that, for Croatia, could be the result of the diagonal long balls that hurt England in the semi-final. France’s 4-3-3 formation certainly makes this tactical move an intriguing option for Zlatko Dilic.

Marcelo Brozovic’s long passes into the full-backs Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic can open spaces against France. Starting from there, Croatia’s full-backs combined with the inverted wingers to cross the ball into the box. Mario Mandzukic’s aerial ability ensures this tactic will come to the fore during the World Cup final.

Here we should take a look at Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard and how and where the French full backs can avoid big damages from those offensive actions.

Atleti’s Lucas Hernandez scored 2,089 points in defensive work in 526 minutes, an average of 3.9 points per minute. His best actions were on his side of the pitch, and he also had good clearances in the 18 yard box.

The Stuttgart defender Benjamin Pavard is one of the greatest surprises of this World Cup, always playing with his head up and constantly doing important work with the ball. He scored 5,842 points in total, at a rate of 12.2 points per minute. Superb work for a full back.

Touché: Always on the run

France owned the bulk of possession, unsurprising given that most of their players feature for top clubs that consistently have higher possession figures. They displayed many similar themes in possession of stability focus as they had in their group stage matches against Peru and Denmark. Playing a variant of the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 in prior matches, the introduction of Tolisso brought about a handful of structural changes.

The Bayern midfielder would alternate between being based in the left half-space and out towards the wings. He was positioned sometimes as a left winger when the ball was on the opposite side, anticipating switches of play. Him and Griezmann demonstrated fluidity among each other, alternating between occupying interior zones and the wings whilst maintaining respective diagonal angles in relation to each other because of the different vertical lines they occupied.

Tolisso only played 188 minutes and scored 2,872 points, a nice average of 15.2 points per minute. Maybe he will not be in the starting XI, but for sure he is a good tactical resource against the hybrid Croatian play model.

With Matuidi certain to start, all the fuel will be on Mbappé and Griezmann’s engines. Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida are far too slow to run with Mbappé. The 19-year-old’s raw power and fearless playing style should allow him to get the better of both centre-backs, as long as Deschamps instructs him to make arcing runs on the shoulder of the last defender.

Meanwhile, Antoine Griezmann is still the star man of this team. He leads, he pushes over and he knows where and when to hurt. The mobility and the smart actions with the ball puts the Atleti forward as the favourite musketeer to do the final thrust against the Croatian defence.

He is the best shooter from both teams, with 3,761 points on the shots board (average of 7.7 per minute). And he is not a fencer of only one sword: he shoots from out of and inside the box, in open play actions or set pieces, from a header or by an individual 1v1 action. With Antoine a touché is for sure.

A direct approach is surely the best way to beat Croatia because doing so would push their lines deeper and eliminate Modric and Ivan Rakitic from the game. Also because of their hybrid play model: sometimes they play like Brazil (creating from ball possession) and sometimes they play like Uruguay (with long balls searching for the centre forward).

All eyes will be on N’Golo Kante in his high-profile midfield battle against Modric and Perisic, but there is plenty more for Didier Deschamps to contend with. France will have it’s hands full with deserving finalists Croatia, and the fencing that will ensue in Moscow on Sunday will be nothing short of fascinating.

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