France might have the greatest strength in depth at this World Cup, but they are yet to become the sum of their strongest parts on the pitch.
The names of players France left out of their squad highlights the ludicrous talent available, with the likes of Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette, Aymeric Laporte and Karim Benzema missing out on spots in the 23-man squad. Coach Didier Deschamps has had the enviable task of assembling a starting XI from this strong generation, but has struggled to find a cohesive side. This was evident even at Euro 2016, where France made the final despite Deschamps switching between different formations.
Deschamps has often rearranged the format of his midfield, but the one constant has been the use of a back four.
France boast possibly the most mobile and athletic centre-back pairing at this tournament. Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti are both athletic, composed defenders capable of defending in a high line, and have been excellent at Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively this season.
The full-backs are similarly quick, with Benjamin Mendy competing with Atletico Madrid’s Lucas Hernandez for the left-back position, whilst Stuttgart’s Benjamin Pavard seems to have cemented his place on the right. The alternative is Djibril Sidibe, who excelled at Monaco in their fine 2016/17 season but like Mendy, missed most of this campaign with injury (which, in both cases, might count against them).
Behind them will be the experienced Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
Midfield and attack
The midfield is Deschamps’ biggest headache. The main issue revolves around Paul Pogba, whose best position would be as an advanced midfielder in a 4-3-3, making runs from deep and having the freedom to move across the pitch to find space. Theoretically, this could be possible by using N’Golo Kante as a deep-lying 6, and playing a third midfielder next to Pogba, but then that requires Antoine Griezmann to play as a lone striker or on the wing, neither of which suits his qualities. Griezmann was top goalscorer at Euro 2016, and connects midfield to attack with clever movement between the lines as a 10, so it seems wasteful to not play him in this position.
That would require Pogba to play deeper, however, as part of a midfield two. However, as evident by this season at Manchester United, that does not suit his own qualities, and restricts his ability to roam across the pitch. This dilemma is at the heart of Deschamps’ chopping and changing – does he format the side to get the best out of Griezmann, or Pogba?
In either case, N’Golo Kante will definitely be the deepest midfielder. A remarkably energetic, athletic player, he covers huge ground and breaks up opposition counter-attacks expertly. He has also improved in his ability on the ball under Antonio Conte, able to play long diagonal passes to either wing as well as carry the ball forward at speed.
There are suggestions Corentin Tolisso will start against Australia in a 4-3-3, with Griezmann upfront. Tolisso is close to a Pogba-Kante hybrid – able to switch the play with long, accurate passes, but also able to carry the ball upfield and dribble past opponents. The concern could be that there could be an overlap between roles in the midfield trio, with a player like Thomas Lemar perhaps a more dynamic inclusion (as suggested by the detailed Spielverlagerung preview). Lemar plays higher up, as a 10 between the lines, and links better with the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele with his incisive through balls. Nabil Fekir is similar to Lemar but is more likely to be an impact sub out wide. Blaise Matuidi is another regular, who started against the USA, but seems more likely to play against stronger opponents to strengthen the midfield zone defensively.
If Deschamps does start Griezmann as a lone striker, then Dembele and Mbappe will start on the left and right respectively – incredibly quick, electric forwards who can dominate 1v1s and get in behind constantly. Should Griezmann play as a 10, then Olivier Giroud will be the 9 – a strong, physical target man good with his back to goal, able to link up nicely in the front third and an obvious target for crosses and more direct play.
Regardless of formation, France’s approach to building up and attacking play has many common rules, outlined in detail by Abel Lorincz’s fine analysis.
In deeper positions, the centre-backs bring the ball out comfortably, with the full-backs pushing high up the pitch and creating space in the middle third for the central midfielders. Both Varane and Umiti are capable of breaking multiple defensive lines with their forward passes, but will keep their distribution simple, circulating the ball across the width of the pitch and playing calmly into the midfield zone.
Pogba will move into wider positions, dropping in front of the opposition midfield line, into the space vacated by the advanced positioning of the left-back. It’s worth noting this could be problematic for the Socceroos 4-4-2 defensive block – they had issues when Hungary dropped their 6s wide of the front two, which pinned the wide players back.
In these moments, Kante stays central, between defenders where he can help switch the play and be in a position to stop a counter-attack if the ball is turned over. As a lone 6, it’s likely Van Marwijk will ask one of the front two to block passes into Kante – who, in these moments, often moves towards the same side as the centre-back in possession, to drag his marker away and create space to switch to the opposite centre-back.
With Kante at the base, France often create a diamond through the centre of the pitch in their build up. This occurs with the 8s to either side of the 6, playing level or in front of the opposition midfield, and Griezmann being the 10 at the tip, occupying space behind the midfield line.
The makeup of this diamond can be fluid – sometimes a winger (Mbappe or Dembele) will come inside into the 10 position, with Griezmann moving towards the wing; other times, Griezmann and the winger will stay higher, between the lines, with an 8 rotating into a wider area (shown below). Evidently, the side has freedom in their positioning, but maintain this diamond structure within this fluidity to try and overload teams in front and in behind the midfield defensive line.
As the centre-backs tend to be cautious with their forward passing, the 8s (i.e., likely Pogba and Tolisso) will move towards the ball in order to get free and be able to face forward. Against Australia’s 4-4-2, they will look to get on the outside of Australia’s central midfielders, with the wide players pinned back and unable to press them in these zones because of the advanced positioning of the wing-backs.
In these moments, Dembele and Mbappe will make movements into the centre of the pitch, either to receive between the lines or, more often, to run in behind the defence. Mbappe is particularly good at running diagonally in between the centre-back and full-back. If Griezmann plays as a false 9, he will look to draw a centre-back out of the back four to create this gap for Mbappe to run into. This can give the side the appearance of a 4-3-1-2 formation, which is what Mbappe termed it in a pre-tournament interview, with the narrowness of the wingers making them pseudo-strikers.
Griezmann himself is able to receive the ball in tight areas between the lines, often via short forward passes from the central midfielders. He has the ability to turn and accelerate away from high pressure, but will sometimes also play first-time, long switch passes towards the full-backs, who are nearly always free in wide areas in these moments because of the inverted runs of Dembele and Mbappe, which draws the opposition full-backs inside.
France will dominate possession against Australia, and will likely build up patiently from the back to push the Socceroos deep into their defensive block.
To pin a team inside their own half, France often push both full-backs very high at the same time, which both drags back opposition wingers if they are asked to track their runs, but also creates space for the wide players to move into narrower positions. To balance this, Kante sits in front of the defence, protecting the centre-backs and giving the team balance in transition moments.
Often, during longer periods of possession, France will switch the ball quickly from one side to the other, with Pogba, Kante & Tolisso all capable of accurate cross-field diagonal balls. This often occurs from right to left, with the left-back able to make a sudden forward run to get in behind the defence.
Both Mendy & Rodriguez are capable of this, and deliver dangerous, low and fizzing deliveries into the box for Griezmann, Dembele & possibly Giroud to attack.
Naturally, France’s dynamic in attack changes with Giroud. When Griezmann moves into a 10 position, and is about to receive the ball between the lines, Giroud is clever to move across to occupy the centre-back nearest Griezmann to prevent him from stepping out of the defence. The two have a fine relationship, best exemplified by the superb combination goal they scored against Iceland at Euro 2016.
Giroud is also excellent at creating space and laying the ball off for other teammates – expect to see Dembele and Mbappe to attempt little one-twos with the striker to penetrate the penalty area when Giroud has his back to goal.
Unsurprisingly, Giroud is also good in the air, able to attack balls delivered from the full-backs. Likewise, Griezmann loses his marker excellently inside the box – two of his goals at Euro 2016 were fine headers.
Perhaps France’s greatest strength is their counterattacking, particularly with both Dembele & Mbappe on the pitch. They break forward quickly, often midfield players bringing the ball forward in support. They also combine excellently at speed, with Griezmann able to drag away defenders with clever runs from deep.
France defends in a medium block, dropping back into either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 shape. The wingers defend assymetrically, with the winger on the same side as the ball often moving higher to close opposition centre-backs. In these moments, the outside central midfielders move into wider areas to close down opposition full-backs, with Kante staying free in the centre to protect the space in front of the centre-backs. The far-side winger tucks in, supporting the midfield.
France are largely passive without the ball, staying compact and moving the block from side to side quickly without actively looking to win the ball back quickly. They close down quickly when balls are played into midfield and in front of the centre-backs, largely because of the athleticism of the players in this zone – Kante and Pogba are able to win the ball effectively against players trying to receive between the lines.
When teams play out from the goalkeeper, France push their lines higher – allowing the first pass out of the back, but closing down higher up to prevent the team from moving the ball into more advanced positions easily.
France won’t press energetically, or with great intent, but are solid without the ball and have superb ball-winning individuals.
France have very talented players, but not a cohesive system. The key dilemma is Griezmann vs Pogba, but in either case the former is the key player – able to link the side as a 10 between the lines, and a constant goal scoring threat. He will open space for Dembele & Mbappe, and possibly a third central midfielder, to attack, as well as combine neatly with teammates in lighting fast counter-attacks.
Both when controlling the ball for long periods, and when defending, France play slower and more patiently, controlling the speed of the game and looking for moments to play forward and win the ball respectively. Deschamps has not instilled a distinctive style of play or implemented a dogmatic philosophy, but he has moulded the side to suit most of the key players and has the benefit of a star-studded squad.