World Cup Semi Final, July 10 2018
France reached their third World Cup final with a narrow victory over European neighbours Belgium in the first semi final of the 2018 tournament. Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti’s second-half header was the only goal of the game, but it was all that was needed for Didier Deschamps’ team to progress. Belgium dominated possession, but couldn’t find an opening against a French side content to sit back and protect a one-goal lead. There was a growing belief that Belgium’s supposed golden generation of players – including Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne – would get their hands on silverware this summer, but they will instead take on England in the third-place playoff in Saint Petersburg on Saturday. For France, meanwhile, only Croatia stand in their way of taking home the main prize for a second time – and a first time beyond their own shores.
18 / 5
SHOTS / ON TARGET
9 / 4
Passes / Accurate
6 / 2 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
16 / 3 / 0
France set up in a 4-3-3 in possession, with Kylian Mbappe playing on the right of a front three, Antoine Griezmann on the left and Olivier Giroud in the middle. N’Golo Kante, in his customary holding role, was accompanied by Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba in midfield.
Les Bleus had two key attacking strategies for the majority of the game. Their most threatening strategy was to play an early ball in behind, looking for the runs of Mbappe, Giroud and Griezmann – this was a ball Pogba was particularly adept at delivering. Their other approach was to patiently build, moving the ball across the pitch in an attempt to create gaps between the Belgium block.
France were able to isolate individuals within the block by positioning players between the lines and through direct dribbling. This was effective in engaging the opposition, which in turn created space for a free player to receive the ball. The full-backs were particularly key to this, as they often became the free player and were able to receive the ball in dangerous areas to deliver.
As the game progressed and France were protecting their one-goal lead, they tended to look more to the counter-attack to create their chances. Their concern was naturally fixed more on being organised and compact defensively.
Didier Deschamps’ team operated in a 4-3-3 mid-block out of possession. The work rate of the midfield three without the ball was phenomenal, with their organisation making it extremely difficult for Belgium to penetrate. France were happy for Belgium’s centre-backs to have possession and ensured that if the ball was delivered into the feet of a midfielder, their only option was to play backwards.
As the game reached the latter stages, one of the midfield three often dropped into the back line, as Belgium pushed more players on to their own top line. Mbappe and Griezmann also operated deeper to effectively create a 5-4-1, with the primary intention of preventing Belgium from playing through. This was successful in keeping the Red Devils’ forwards quiet, as France went on to reach their third World Cup final.
Belgium set up in a 3-4-3 in possession. Nacer Chadli played on the right side of midfield, with captain Eden Hazard on the left. Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembele played centrally, behind Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne.
Roberto Martinez’s players found it very difficult to penetrate during the majority of this game, and the issue was one of personnel. They struggled without the presence of Hazard and De Bruyne in the centre of the park, with Dembele and Witsel weak in their attempts to pull apart the French midfield. Belgium looked too static and rigid; when they did offer movement and rotation, France were untroubled.
It might have made more sense for Yannick Carrasco to have started in place of Fellaini, and have Hazard playing as one of the front three with De Bruyne on the other side. With this, both could have dropped in to help Dembele and Witsel in the build-up.
Belgium looked much more threatening later in the game, when Dries Mertens was introduced and Fellaini moved wider, allowing Hazard to play inside. The Red Devils were at their most dangerous when Hazard was running at the French defence.
Belgium operated in a 4-3-3 mid-block out of possession, with De Bruyne and Hazard providing the support for Lukaku at the top of the block, while Fellaini dropped into midfield to play just ahead of Witsel and Dembele. They were reasonably organised when France were patiently moving the ball, looking to find gaps. However, they struggled to track runners from deep, and their mid-block too often provided the French players with the time and space to deliver accurate, long passes forward.
Having a central three also made it difficult for Belgium to cover the width of the field without leaving gaps if the first line of the press was breached. This helped France, as they tended to position players between the lines, making it difficult for Belgium to both remain compact and deal with the threats in these spaces.
It also often left the France full-backs free out wide, as they would be too deep for Chadli and Jan Vertonghen to worry about, but too high and wide for De Bruyne and Hazard to help without being pulled too far away from Lukaku and losing their compactness. For all the criticism he has faced during his tenure, France manager Didier Deschamps once again got his tactics spot on.