France – Iceland: World Champions Look Much Improved In Possession And Play Iceland Off The Park (4-0)
In a very one-sided affair, France completely dominated the game and produced a brilliant performance to beat Iceland 4-0 in Stade de France. Iceland parked the bus and managed to keep a one-goal margin until the late stages, but France was never really threatened here and completely outclassed their opponents. Having not impressed in possession against underdogs even during their World Cup triumph, France showed significant improvements here with some excellent movement and passing in the final third.
Tactical analysis and match report by Cem Soylu.
Manager Didier Deschamps has been keen on playing his World Cup winning side together as much as possible. Everybody who kept a close eye on France this summer in Russia could have largely drawn up the starting lineup. The only exception was Layvin Kurzawa, who filled in at left back for the injured Lucas Hernández.
Erik Hamrén did quite the opposite, as he ditched the 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 formation that has been heavily accustomed with Iceland, opting to switch to a 5-3-2 shape in order to defend deep against France. This was interesting, since Iceland delivered a very good display in a friendly against France recently in October, using a 4-4-1-1 formation. In that match, Iceland had the better chances and a two-goal lead, before a late France comeback produced a 2-2 scoreline. Perhaps the dire Nations League campaign, along with an injury for one of their most creative players – Jóhann Berg Gudmundsson – led Hamrén to test a new formation.
Formations when France had possession. Kylian Mbappé drifted around when France were attacking, often going all the way to the left.
France’s troubles against underdogs
Deschamps’ approach at the World Cup was one of the premier football debates this summer. France were very disciplined, solid and efficient, but by no means a dominant side that thoroughly outplayed their opponents. Gifted with an extremely talented squad, in Russia, Deschamps deliberately opted to let their opponents have the ball, play a compact 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. to deny space in midfield, and focus on fast transitions using the passing range and craft of Paul Pogba along with the scintillating pace and technical quality of Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé.
This approach worked wonders to disrupt strong sides on their path to winning the World Cup, but produced dull, unimaginative displays against the underdogs as seen in their group stage performance. To put things into perspective, out of the fourteen goals France scored in the World Cup, three were penalties, two were own goals, two came from set pieces, three were long range shots, and one was a goalkeeping howler.
Giroud factor & Mbappé’s free role
Against a team that parked the bus and completely relied on set pieces and Aron Gunnarsson’s long throws to create chances, France enjoyed 69% possession. Iceland formed a steady low block, A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. with the front two trying to prevent passes into Kanté and Pogba. Iceland’s midfield three zonally shifted over to the ball side, as is fairly customary in a 5-3-2 shape.
There is a reason Olivier Giroud is an integral part of this team despite not having scored the entire World Cup: he is an excellent link-up player. With Griezmann and Mbappé buzzing around him, France relies on his one-touch service for chance creation in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. He’s also naturally a target for the crosses with his aerial ability.
The main difference for France compared to the aforementioned poor displays against underdogs was the sublime movement of their attacking players, perhaps helped by Iceland’s shape and the lack of threat they posed. Iceland’s lack of wingers meant France could push both fullbacks very high up along the field.
The lack of width and offensive threat by their fullbacks was one of the main problems for France in their possession play in Russia. Especially since their nominal starting fullbacks – Hernández and Benjamin Pavard – are center-backs by nature. Here both Kurzawa and Pavard enjoyed a very offensive evening, as especially Pavard’s presence proved a key role as it allowed Mbappé to play almost a free role.
Mbappé was brilliant throughout the match. Usually moving in from his right-sided position, he acted as the second striker, moved all around the final third to look for space and often found it on the left, thanks to the dynamic movement of Matuidi. This made France look almost like a 4-4-2 at times, with Griezmann occasionally occupying the right 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 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. when Mbappé was roaming.
As one of France’s key paths to goal, he often looked for one-twos with Giroud and Griezmann before bursting behind the defense. The young lightning bolt got himself into some promising positions in the first half, and even though France did not create many clear-cut chances, Mbappé looked the most threatening. He provided the cross for Samuel Umtiti’s opening goal after thirteen minutes, having received the ball on the left following a corner kick.
In their rare spells of possession, Iceland played in a 3-5-1-1 formation with Gylfi Sigurdsson dropping to a number ten position and Birkir Bjarnason drifting towards the left. In another change of behavior, France was proactive out of possession, counterpressed effectively after they lost the ball, played a high line and asserted their dominance.
France break the resistance and run riot
From a tactical perspective, nothing changed in the game from start to finish. Both managers kept their starting shapes and approaches throughout the match, and the substitutions were straightforward. Hamrén made two straight swaps, bringing on Traustason and Finnbogason for Sigurjonsson and Gudmundsson.
Interestingly, France’s second goal coincided with one of the rare moments that Iceland pressed high and committed players forward. France played through the pressure, Pavard burst forward and combined twice with Mbappé who tried a rabona cross to Pogba. The rebound was played into Pavard again, who whipped in a great cross for Giroud to tap in.
Iceland started pressing higher after 2-0 and they found it really hard to deal with French attackers in the late stages, with Mbappé largely playing as a second striker in this period with Griezmann on the right. France is significantly more dangerous when allowed more space and are more than capable of playing through pressure.
The third goal was an excellent team goal that showcased the entire skill set the French attackers possess and the improvements in possession play. Pogba played a one-two with Giroud who dropped deep, produced a wonderful outside foot pass between the lines to Griezmann, who received in the right halfspace and cut inside. Matuidi’s decoy run took right center-back Ingason away, Griezmann played a through ball to Mbappé who darted into that space and finished coolly. All the players involved in the attack did what they do best, with intelligent movement that gave them the space to do so. Griezmann provided the fourth after a wonderful back heel pass by Mbappé sent him through on goal.
Whatever your stance on this France team may be, it is hard to find a hole in their performance when looking at this match. Deschamps is insisting on playing the same players since the summer, much to the disappointment of many neutrals who would prefer more of the French talent integrated into the team for more attractive football. However, this group of players visibly has a great chemistry, and they proved extremely tough to break on their path to glory. Therefore it makes sense to build on what they have with improving the proven winning formula.
After all, Deschamps only came up with this system in the second group stage game against Peru. France have played around a dozen games since then, mostly against tougher opposition. Here he worked on solutions against a sort of opponent his team used to struggle against. He pushed his fullbacks higher up the pitch, gave Mbappé a free role, worked on some specific movements and the same line-up played some excellent football in possession. It’s good to see a World Cup winning side trying to improve and playing with great hunger and desire while doing so.
Hamrén, on the other hand, will most likely revert back to the 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2 shape that made Iceland an accomplished side in Europe. While that formation used to give them plenty of tooth with more numbers to attack the second balls that results from their direct play, here they simply didn’t have any path to goal except set pieces.
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