England – France: English Heartbreak After Close Match (1-2)
England went behind early on to Aurélien Tchouaméni’s long range effort and found it difficult to break through France’s flexible defensive scheme in the first half. After the break Gareth Southgate’s side were livelier and were able to draw level thanks to Harry Kane’s penalty. An Olivier Giroud header and a Kane penalty miss late on ended up being the pivotal moments though, as France eventually prevailed.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
After England’s convincing win over Senegal, there were questions about whether Gareth Southgate would stick with the same 4-3-3 system against the talents of France, or whether he would try to adapt to the opposition by changing system.
In the end Southgate ended up sticking with the arrangement that had gotten England to this point, meaning that it was a back four of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, and Luke Shaw with Declan Rice as the defensive midfielder in front. Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham joined Rice in midfield, while the frontline was comprised of Bukayo Saka, Harry Kane, and Phil Foden.
France impressed in the group stage and continued their form last time out as they swept Poland aside. On paper they lined up with a 4-2-3-1 shape, with a back four of Jules Koundé, Raphaël Varane, Dayot Upamecano, and Theo Hernandez. Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot played in central midfield with Antoine Griezmann in the number ten role. Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé were the wingers either side of Olivier Giroud up front.
France start brightly
France had a decent start to the game in which they were also able to take the lead within twenty minutes thanks to an accurate long-range strike from Tchouaméni. Up to this point, they had threatened with their attacks down the right side.
When France had possession, Koundé generally remained deeper alongside the center backs, while Dembélé held the width on the right and Griezmann occupied an advanced position in the right halfspace behind the England midfield.
Griezmann and Dembélé’s right sided roles were key to France’s attack.
Tchouaméni was then the deepest midfielder, while Rabiot played at variable heights in the left halfspace depending on Hernandez and Mbappé’s movements. If Hernandez went forward, Mbappé could indent and Rabiot would drop deeper. Alternatively, Mbappé stayed closer to the touchlinie with Rabiot higher and Hernandez further back.
France’s best attacking moments aside from the goal in the first half came from the connection between Griezmann and Dembélé. Griezmann would take up good positions in the right halfspace, aided by Dembélé keeping Shaw oriented wide. Furthermore, Griezmann often supported Dembélé with underlapping runs into the space vacated by Shaw when he tried to pressure Dembélé, resulting in a couple of dangerous situations for England.
England control possession
After going in front, France were happier to sit back and play on the counter-attack, handing control of possession over to England. Southgate’s side had difficulties for the remainder of the half against a flexible defensive scheme that proved hard to break down.
France’s defensive scheme firstly sees Mbappé gambling on the left side, staying in an advanced position ready for counter-attacks and leaving space behind him. Rabiot can partly cover this space from his position, as can Hernandez stepping up in certain cases. However, France’s defensive strategy on this side is in equal part based on forcing opponents to respect the threat of Mbappé on the counter-attack, and therefore be more cautious on this wing.
England did this with Walker playing in a deep role, as he often does for club and country. The proximity of Mbappé to Walker in buildup though often meant that England would not play to Walker since he would have little time on the ball.
This directed much of England’s buildup attempts towards the left side. Dembélé was more passive here, usually tracking Shaw down the wing. Bellingham often pushed high in the left halfspace. Tchouaméni would usually slide across to mark him, while Griezmann also often used his cover shadow to close the right halfspace.
The match became somewhat asymmetric when England had the ball.
Griezmann and Giroud generally shared responsibility for Rice, while Rabiot stuck close to Henderson. Things could become rather congested for England on the left with France’s stronger coverage on this side, and Foden in particular struggled to get into the game.
An interesting idea in this case is to try and use switches of play over to Saka on the right side in order to take advantage of the space there. In reality though, Hernandez was usually sharp enough to prevent Saka receiving these passes comfortably.
Penalty heartbreak for England
England were handed a way back into the game early in the second half as Saka was fouled by Tchouaméni just inside the box. Kane dispatched the penalty, drawing England level with most of the half to play.
France were forced to come out of their shell, and this opened the game up a bit for an improved England. Saka and Foden were indenting and getting their dribbles into the game more, and the midfield was more spacious since France were trying to press higher.
Much of the second half was fairly equal in the period between Kane’s equalizer and Giroud’s header to put France 2-1 up with just over ten minutes to go. France did start building up the pressure towards the end of this spell though, even if they were increasingly leaning on the long balls towards Giroud.
The striker’s aerial prowess finally paid off when he met Griezmann’s cross to make it 2-1, but France almost threw it away minutes later as some foolish defending from Hernandez gave Kane a second chance from the spot. This time he missed his penalty, and France were let off the hook.
By this point Southgate was making his substitutes, with Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling having come on for Henderson and Saka. Marcus Rashford also joined in place of Foden. Didier Deschamps meanwhile made just one change throughout, adding fresh legs on the right as Kingsley Coman replaced Dembélé.
France managed the game fairly well in the closing stages, able to force some phases of play into the England half and break up the tempo by winning some cheap fouls. England put pressure on in the final minutes but ultimately fell short as France advanced into the semi-finals.
England’s possession game lacked solutions against France’s asymmetric defensive scheme in the first half. They benefitted from things opening up a bit after the break, and things could have been very different if Kane had converted his second penalty. As it was, they ultimately did not create much from open play, and ended up losing a game of small margins.
On the flipside, France did not create a huge amount from open play either, and can count themselves slightly fortunate for Kane’s miss. Both penalties were rather silly ones to give away, and some of the defending on an individual level was quite irrational around the box. In the end two moments of quality made the difference for them – Tchouaméni’s strike in the first half, and Griezmann’s exquisite cross for Giroud’s winner. France now go on to face a stubborn Morocco side who will once again test their abilities against a low block.
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