England — France: Clash Of The Conservatives

France and England have not always appeased fans but now compete as two of the favorites to claim the trophy. This preview shows how their leaders have followed similar paths to reach the quarter-finals and how these choices could go on to determine the course of this contest.

This tactical preview was written by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

France and England have not always been on cordial terms. But their incumbent managers seem to see eye to eye on the issue of handling affairs on the grand stage. In Gareth Southgate, Didier Deschamps has an ally. Both men have a wealth of talent at their disposal. Both men remain under the scrutiny of the public for their choices of personnel and preference of strategy. And yet, both managers have commandeered multiple deep runs in knockout tournaments: a feat neither country can take for granted. So is there something in both figures’ approaches that the rest of us observers are missing?

Stability of means, stability of results

There is not much new from England’s perspective. Stability and efficiency have been enough so far. Their latest test, a 3-0 win over the Senegalese, should not have ended with such a clear margin of victory. Nonetheless, the performance expertly showed off their skill at doing what Southgate asks.

The first third of this match was an awkward affair for Southgate’s men. Their midfielders struggled to get into the game, the dreaded U-shape soon took hold, and it seemed like a laborious evening was in the offing. Jude Bellingham, thankfully, stole the show as the standout player on the pitch: his dynamic, line-breaking running and ball winning forged two incisive attacks that created goals.

His first intervention was in the 39th minute. However, the signals that warned of his assist for Jordan Henderson were long in the making. English attacks funneled down the left flank, where Bellingham, Phil Foden, and Harry Kane starred. It is worth pausing to take stock of the lattermost figure’s role on this side. In England, many have wondered if Southgate gets the best out of a man whose goal tally at the opening stages of tournaments flatters to deceive. But in a system where his teammates move in unison at the right moments, Kane’s work outside the box is a strength, not an inherent weakness.

9th minute: typical offensive sequence from England v Senegal. Harry Maguire receives the ball from John Stones, urging Krépin Diatta to block the passing lane to the higher fullback Shaw. Bellingham drops into the halfspace pocket and feeds a pass to Shaw, then Foden runs off the back of Youssouf Sabaly. The depth from the left winger allows Kane to drop slightly deeper to link without his marker, Kalidou Koulibaly, following him, since he threatens to break in behind from a cushioned header.

The overloads on that flank kept testing Senegal’s guile. The runs of Bellingham and Foden eventually wore them down. Southgate’s men do not excel at breaking down deep opponents, but they continue to reward his faith in his strategy. Nor should they need to be very daring. Their progress was never in doubt after the second goal: this outfit are both experienced and solid at defending deep. Southgate has defied many of his critics, restoring the roar of the Three Lions on the international stage.

King Kylian and co. shoulder the burden

The reigning champions gave us all a good look at what we can expect from them strategically during the rest of the tournament. They might not sparkle, but opponents sleep on their style at their peril.

A 3-1 victory over Poland emphasized their decisiveness. The outsiders had scraped through to the Round of 16 on goal difference, barricading themselves in a 6-3-1 shape. Though they also sat off the French in this contest, their ball pressure and compactness restrained the favorites. Didier Deschamps’ men offered few solutions, nor were they intent on robbing the ball back quickly from Poland, free to circulate the play at ease. Oliver Giroud calmed the nerves, but the French were hardly impressive.

In the second half, their passivity only set in further. Griezmann dropped even more into the midfield, and Dembélé supported Koundé in a 4-5-1 block. Still only a goal behind, the Polish kept probing for a breakthrough. But against an outfit that has been blessed with supreme physique and athleticism at the heart of their defense, taking them apart at the final stand is easier said than done. Arkadiusz Milik added an extra body to the offense, but the talisman remained absent. Lewandowski was everywhere but in the box, and his teammates could only muster one shot in the half hour spell after half time.

74th minute: buildup to Mbappé’s first goal against Poland. Griezmann’s clearance sent the ball into the path of Giroud, who found Dembélé on his outside to advance the French in transition. The right winger chopped inside Bartosz Bereszyński and as Jakub Kiwior drops off towards the edge of his penalty area, Giroud runs laterally along the offside line. Kiwior’s partner, Kamil Glik shifts inside to cover the open central space, giving Mbappé room in the left halfspace to line up his strike and score.

In the end, typical weaknesses revealed themselves: a lack of courage and risk on the ball or invention from the flanks. But that critique must be more forgiving if one remembers the threat at the other end of the pitch. Mbappé, who took Giroud’s place as the striker before the final whistle, gambled on higher positions from which he could act as a launchpad on the break. To his inside was Giroud, an astute complement whose diagonal runs and back-to-goal play take attention away from the stars.

Behind him was Théo Hernández. Centrally was Antoine Griezmann… The names do not end. France have an obscene depth of quality. One could deploy it in a far more imaginative manner: many wish Deschamps would. But when a danger man like theirs thrives so much, how much does that matter?

The search for stability

Both countries have higher gears they have used. The English have shown in a 4-3-3 formation how they can suddenly pick up the speed of attacks through Kane working in tandem with his teammates from the flanks. Ousmané Dembélé’s role on the right flank affords the French a more offensive dimension to add to their repertoire from the World Cup winning side of 2018. But both have relied on the stability of their defenses as a foundation for success. That ought to be a defining factor here.

Southgate will be mulling over sticking with a back four or returning to a back five. Kyle Walker and Kylian Mbappé have taken the headlines, but it has also taken attention away from the dynamic on the other flank. Dembélé is no slouch. His ambidexterity and unpredictability render him a formidable opponent for Luke Shaw. One cannot expect much more help from Harry Maguire. So, on the one hand, a fifth man at the back can shore up the rearguard. On the other hand, losses to Croatia in 2018 and Italy last summer are lessons in match management from which the manager will be wise to learn.

Deschamps may ponder how he sets out the spine of his outfit. Injuries ruled out both Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, his double pivot from the 2018 World Cup, forcing Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot to step up to the plate. Griezmann has been a willing worker off the ball, but the new pair does not provide the same physical or tactical stability in the middle of the park. Opponents are yet to test the resolve of that balance: could this fixture mark the day this relative weakness comes to light?


By this stage of the World Cup, the big nations tend to face each other. In this way, what worked in the earlier phases of the competition might not translate to their other fixtures. Both countries have faith in their defensive security, but how that causes the game to pan out is less of a certainty.

England are more active off the ball than the French, but both are willing to give up possession. Southgate could easily choose to switch his system in the name of stability, and Deschamps might have to react to a change in offensive emphasis. Both men have a number of options to infuse more firepower into the attack. Several aspects of this clash are up in the air. But whatever Southgate and Deschamps do, they will hope that their conservative inclinations are a help, not a hindrance.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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