Breaking The Curse Of The Defending Champions?
Generally, going into a tournament as the defending champions is a good thing, but that is perhaps not the case in the FIFA Men’s World Cup. In each of the last three editions, the holders have been knocked out in the group stage, and France themselves suffered this fate the last time they were in such a position in 2002. This time around, they do have one of the strongest squads at the tournament and are among the favourites, but there are a lot of questions for them to answer.
This tactical preview has been written by Neel Shelat.
That last sentence rather sums up the French men’s senior international football scene of late – world-beating quality on paper, but not everything seems to click all at once. Indeed their last major tournament – the Euros – ended in disappointment as they were knocked out of the Round of Sixteen by Switzerland on penalties, although their overall performance was not greatly encouraging either.
Not much has changed for the better since then so they do not come into this tournament in the best of form, having just about avoided relegation from the UEFA Nations League A division and dropped six points in their World Cup qualification group with Ukraine, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kazakhstan. Still, they cannot be written off based on the quality of the players in their squad.
Injury-inflicted squad selection
The downside of having such a wealth of talent to pick from is that there are a lot of tough calls that need to be made in the squad selection, as Didier Deschamps undoubtedly knows after his years in charge of France. On this occasion, though, the 54-year-old manager had most of his decisions effectively already made for him, as a number of key players will miss this World Cup through injury.
Defending champions France drop their 25-player roster for the World Cup 🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/9JRFV18eYO— B/R Football (@brfootball) November 9, 2022
Mike Maignan’s absence leaves the starting goalkeeper position all to Hugo Lloris, with Alphonse Areola and Steve Mandanda set to play back up roles. The most interesting decisions made by Deschamps were in the defensive department, where his decision to avoid picking overly attack-minded fullbacks or wing-backs is a clear indication of the fact that he plans to set his side up in a back four system.
The biggest injury issues for France are in midfield, where the starting duo from the Euros of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté are both out injured. They do have a couple of great replacements for them, most notably Aurélien Tchouaméni, but there is a drop off in depth quality as the likes of Jordan Veretout and Adrien Rabiot are not among the very best in the business at the moment.
There is a wealth of talent at Deschamps’ disposal in the attacking department, though. Kylian Mbappé is probably the first name on the teamsheet, but it could almost be anyone alongside him. Karim Benzema’s fitness concerns and Olivier Giroud’s form make it a toss up for the striker position, whilst Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembélé are both great options on the right wing, although they provide differing qualities. Antoine Griezmann will have to compete with Bundesliga star Christopher Nkunku for the position behind the striker.
Going back to the back four
Deschamps experimented with a back three system which looked fantastic going forward on its day but was also easily contained by well-drilled sides. He has seemingly given his verdict on that by ditching it and likely returning to a back four system that will not be too dissimilar to the one that France used en route to World Cup glory in 2018.
On paper, their formation might be described as a 4-2-3-1 shape. Deschamps has a few choices to make as far as his starting center-backs are concerned, but Benjamin Pavard and Theo Hernández are most likely to start as the fullbacks. Tchouaméni should be a nailed-on starter in midfield, but alongside him, it could be a toss-up between the likes of Youssouf Fofana and Eduardo Camavinga. We have already briefly explored the attacking options, so under normal circumstances, Benzema should lead the line with Griezmann behind him, Mbappé on the left and either Dembélé or Coman on the right depending on the opposition.
As far as their approach to matches is concerned, France should be expected to keep more of the ball in their group stage matches, but are not an ultra possession-dominant team such as Spain or Italy. Therefore, if they come across top-quality opposition in the knockouts, they will also be happy to pose a threat in counterattacking situations with their star-studded front line.
Out of possession, France have not tended to employ a high press with a back four, so they should be expected to defend in a 4-4-2 medium block, A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half.with the wingers dropping back and Griezmann pushing up to the front line alongside Benzema. Here is an example of what that might look like from their recent Nations League match against Portugal.
France defending in a 4-4-2 medium block against Portugal.
France are not going to be the most defensively resolute side in the tournament, but the natural compactness offered by this structure along with the strong individuals present in their back line should be enough for them to contain their opponents’ attacking play fairly successfully.
Either way, what should be more intriguing is how France function in possession. Due to the player profiles in their squad, they have tended to look quite asymmetrical going forward with a back four, with much going on on the left side of the pitch than on the right. Theo Hernández is much more of an attacking fullback than Pavard, and his advances will be accommodated by the positional freedom afforded to Mbappé, who will often be spotted in the left halfspace. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace.
The reverse fixture between France and Portugal gave us a good look at how Deschamps’ side might shape up in possession, even though some key players were missing.
France’s asymmetrical attacking shape against Portugal.
On the right, Pavard will stay much deeper and overlap significantly less frequently than Hernández, whilst the winger might tend to hug the touchline more. This is where the selection dilemma gets compounded further because Dembélé is quite used to this at Barcelona where Xavi’s system is also left-biased, but Pavard probably has a better connection with Coman given the fact that the two also work together at Bayern Munich.
As is the case for most international sides, there do not seem to be too many intricate patterns to France’s possession play. Instead, they rely on the quality of their players to make the difference on the pitch, which certainly is not a bad strategy for such an immensely talented team. So, there will be a good deal of expectation on the likes of Mbappé and Benzema to create some magic in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. but they are no strangers to such responsibilities.
Quite clearly, France still have one of the best squads on paper in spite of their injury troubles and a manager who has worked with most of these players previously, so he will know how to get the best out of them. Returning to the more individualistic back four system is also a good idea for the same reason, as well as the fact their star players are used to delivering under pressure.
Rationally speaking, it is incredibly likely that France make it out of their group, but the curse of the champions is something that defies logic. Should they not fall victim to it, it might be imperative for them to top their group ahead of Denmark because the side that finishes second is likely to face Argentina in the Round of Sixteen.
France’s target will, of course, be to defend their title, and whilst they are among the favorites, the likes of Brazil and Argentina could provide tough competition. At the end of the day, though, almost anything is possible in knockout football, so it would certainly be unwise to count France out.
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