3 Tactical Observations from France vs. Romania
Well, that was a fantastic game to start Euro 2016. Tournament favorites France against a Romanian team with literally no household names. Most pundits predicted a comfortable win for Les Blues to kick off the tournament however someone forgot to give the Romanians the script. They were resolute in defense with a deep defensive block and when they did counter-press they had the opportunities to break on the counter to hurt France more than they were able to. In the end it was an inspired Dimitri Payet performance that led to a valuable 3 points for Deschamps’ men. Over the course of the game three key tactical points stood out with regards to France’s setup and performance.
France could use a change of formation
France setup for this game with a 4–3–3. The back 5 as expected, a midfield 3 of Kante, Pogba and Matuidi, Giroud up front flanked by Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann. To be specific they attempted to play a possession based 4–3–3 and therein lay the problem. For a possession based 4–3–3 to work effectively you need creative, technical players in the midfield 3. Pogba can fit that bill but neither Matuidi nor Kante have the ability to break lines against a deep block. Matuidi does make late runs into the box but isn’t really adept at carrying the ball forward. So if Pogba has a bad day and is unable to position himself slightly ahead of the other two to create the conduit between midfield and attack or carry the ball forward, you have a situation where you end up with that midfield 3 passing the ball backwards and sideways which we saw a lot of in the game. This was largely due to Romania’s compact shape in their own half. The other alternative to this would be to spread the play to the wings with both fullbacks providing support. However Payet and Griezmann tended to drift inside in and out of possession instead of staying wide. This is reflective of the positions they have played for their respective clubs this season. Payet with a tendency to drift in and be most effective in central areas for West Ham and Griezmann used to playing as a shadow striker for Atletico. This resulted in Evra trying to provide width but he left a lot of space in behind him for Adrian Popa and Cristian Sapunaru to exploit who gave him a pretty torrid time. Sagna was rarely able to venture forward for this game as Rat, Bogdan Stancu and Hoban constantly overloaded his flank keeping him pegged back in his own half for most of the game. The possession based 4–3–3 effectively turned into a sterile possession based 4–3–3. If Deschamps wants to persist with this eleven then a 4–2–3–1 may be the best option, with Kante and Matuidi as a double pivot, Pogba flanked by Payet and Griezmann and Giroud up top for them to play off.
The Curious Case of Olivier Giroud
Olivier Giroud is probably the only striker who scores 17–20 goals a season and gets as much stick as he does. For his club his biggest fault is that he is not Robin Van Persie, for his country his biggest fault is that he is not Karim Benzema. He didn’t have a great game yesterday but Antoine Griezmann missed a chance that had “FFS Giroud” written all over it. The biggest criticism of him is that he needs 4 chances to score 1, which is a 25% chance conversion rate (Premier League chance conversion average for all strikers last season — 21%), that’s how easy it is for our confirmation biases to kick in. There were calls for him to be substituted first in the game yesterday with Anthony Martial deemed to be more effective in his role. Deschamps however persisted with Giroud because he knows what Arsene Wenger does. The deeper a defense starts sitting the more effective Giroud becomes. He gets closer to the box where he is a constant threat in the air and as a poacher. He also helps bring other players into the game with his hold up play and one touch passing. He is known as a flat track bully in the Premier League, scoring most of his goals against bottom half teams. You know what’s common to those teams? They all sit deep and invite Arsenal to attack and this is where he profits. That’s exactly what happened with Romania he scored at the 57 minute mark which seemed like it was against the narrative but it was actually a culmination of his and Payet’s tireless work in pushing the Romanian defense back. Martial may yet have a case to start in this team but it’s not as a center forward, he would be a more natural fit on the left of a front three if France continues with that formation. In fact if Deschamps wants to get the best out of all the pacy options he has up front he needs to continue to play them off Giroud as a focal point.
Defense as a unit needs to improve
Most of the reaction you will read from the game is that there are massive issues with the back line and the primary culprits being Patrice Evra and Adil Rami. This is partly true as they often represented the last line of a defensive action however the lax defending from the midfield played a significant part in this as well. Romania made 9 ball recoveries in France’s back and their final third. 5 of those were on the flank being defended by Evra, Matuidi and Payet. This was a direct result of Evra trying to move up to support Payet who kept drifting infield, however instead of Matuidi slotting in to cover the space vacated by Evra (he left that to Kante) he too positioned himself up the pitch to try and play triangles with Payet and Evra. This was when Romania would attempt to press France which then resulted in them recovering the ball in dangerous areas. On the other side as Rat, Stancu and Hoban overloaded Sagna, Rami would naturally get drawn out to assist him thereby leaving huge gaps between him and Koscielny for Stanciu and Andone to operate in. The selection of Rami is not a popular one and he can look like a mistake waiting to happen but managers tend to go with experience in international tournaments. Deschamps clearly sees him as a safer bet over the talented but raw Umtiti and the error prone Mangala. On a positive note N’Golo Kante was superb as usual with the most yards run and blocks and interceptions made and it was often he who thwarted the ball recoveries by Romania in the first phase of transition.
France will be happy with the win and the points and can point to it being the first game of the tournament, however there are significant gaps for them to fill till the game against Albania. If they are to persist with the same formation then they need to figure out a way to get Pogba into the game, maybe start him higher up the pitch and ask Matuidi to maintain more of a defensive profile. The other option is to start Payet on the right of Giroud instead of the left, both the goals came from him taking up positions on that side, this also gives Pogba an outlet if he continues to play on the right of the midfield three. Finally the only swap that could be made defensively is Jallet for Evra however you would expect Deschamps to give the veteran another game in an effort to stabilize the backline and build chemistry. France still remain huge favorites at home but there is work to be done to fortify that claim.