Tactical Focus: France v Spain
New to French Football Weekly, Harvey Kelly details the potential tactical battle between France and Spain. His aim? To look at the salient features of the game the two sides played in Spain in October, and how they might feature in the return fixture in Paris on Tuesday.
At the Calderon, both teams lined up in a 4-3-3, but with vastly different game strategies. Spain set up to play as we all know, controlling possession, tiring the opposition, probing, looking for openings. France played a front three of Ribery, Benzema and Menez, but when defending, Ribery and Menez were to pull back, giving the team more of a 4-1-4-1 shape. The midfield trio consisted of Maxime Gonalons holding, with Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye as the central midfielders. Cabaye was facing Iniesta, with Matuidi on Xavi. Spain had Xabi Alonso holding with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas as a centre-forward, and David Silva and Pedro out wide.
Spain’s first half
Key to all of Spain’s play was Andres Iniesta. His positioning was interesting, sometimes he was even more offensively-minded than when playing for Barcelona. For Spain we’re used to seeing Iniesta as a left-sided forward, and here although he was nominally in midfield, his positioning was extremely aggressive. He seems to have been given the brief of playing as a left inside-forward, far more advanced than Xavi who was operating centrally.
Here are the teams early in the first half. Note Menez (and Ribery on the far side) near the halfway line giving France a five-man midfield, and Iniesta positioning himself in between Cabaye and Debuchy.
It’s well known that when facing a 4-3-3, the space is on the flank (between fullback and winger) as the three central midfielders make is difficult to pass through the middle, and the positioning of Iniesta obviously wasn’t accidental. As Spain built their play, time and again Cabaye would be nervously looking over his shoulder trying to see where Iniesta was, whereas Xavi was positioned much deeper, directly in front of Matuidi. A recurring tactical motif of the match was the overloading of the left flank from Spain, attacking the right side of France’s defence. Over and over, the same movements and players were involved. Iniesta, the left-back Jordi Alba, and the left-forward (at first David Silva, then Santi Cazorla, and later Pedro) would attack down the flank, their movement, running with the ball, and quick passing causing problems and creating openings for Spain. Usually Cazorla/Pedro would start wide to give Iniesta (and sometimes Fabregas) space before darting inside, with the left-back, Jordi Alba, overlapping and providing width.
On the opposite flank, Pedro hardly saw the ball, and when Silva went off injured in the 13th minute to be replaced by Cazorla, the play continued down the left. Del Bosque must have had more faith in Pedro’s speed and directness than Cazorla’s guile, as halfway through the first half he switched Cazorla to the right and Pedro to the left, and the Pedro-Alba-Iniesta left-flank overload was the game’s prominent feature well into the second half.
It’s worth remembering that in the European Championships last year Laurent Blanc tried to counter this threat by fielding two full-backs (Debuchy and Reveillere) to protect this flank. Attacking down the left has become a common feature of Spain’s play, but the extent of play down this one wing was extraordinary, I would say in the region of 15 to 1 in favour of the left over the right flank.
It’s unclear why Spain chose to target this area so heavily. Debuchy started his professional career as a midfielder, later moving to right-back, so it would probably be fair to say that defensively he maybe isn’t as strong as Evra, and obviously Jordi Alba, a converted winger, is a far more naturally gifted attacking threat than Arbeloa on the right. However, a key feature appeared to be Cabaye’s mobility, or lack of it. It might be churlish to criticise Cabaye, as the World and European champions can pass their way around anyone, but Cabaye is a deep-lying playmaker, not a snarling defensive tackler able to cover ground quickly. It would be interesting to see how Spain would have reacted if Matuidi had swapped positions with Cabaye and moved over to that side of the pitch – would Spain have then switched targets, picking on Cabaye again, but this time down the right? Or stuck to their guns and the policy of attacking down the left? Or would that 15:1 ratio have narrowed, so ‘only’ two-thirds or three-quarters of the play came on that sidet?
Another interesting feature of the game was the use of Alonso as a single holding midfielder. Spain usually play with both Busquets and Alonso holding (although Alonso has far more freedom to advance), with Xavi stationed further up the pitch, probably best denoted as a 4-2-1-3 rather than a 4-3-3. But with Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique both injured, Vicente del Bosque chose to pull Busquets back into central defence (as he’s played for Barcelona from time to time), and use a single holding midfield player in Alonso, not only for the game against France, but also against Belarus four days previously (a 4-0 win for Spain). Indeed, with Alonso injured, del Bosque played Busquets as a single holder in the 1-1 draw against Finland on Friday evening, and I think it’s safe to assume he’ll be the one holder against France on Tuesday (and with Xavi doubtful for the game, expect to see Cazorla, Silva, or perhaps Juan Mata in central midfield in place of Xavi).
Intriguingly, further up the pitch Spain’s central attacking three of Iniesta, Xavi and Fabregas started to rotate at times. Fabregas would come to Iniesta’s inside-left position, Iniesta would station himself in central midfield, and Xavi would move forward as a false nine. Then a few minutes later they would rotate back to their original positions. All very Ajax and Total Football, and of course very Barcelona. If Spain had played with the two holding midfielders of Busquets and Alonso, we wouldn’t have seen this swapping of position and rotation in the central areas.
As most teams do against Spain, France set out to contain and hit Spain when they could at speed. The attacking plan was quick long balls, at first to Ribery in the hope of a one-on-one against Arbeloa, and later primarily to Benzema – as the half progressed and the Spanish pressure built, both Ribery and Menez were spending more and more time on defensive duties and weren’t available as outlets, which left Benzema competing unsuccessfully for high balls against Ramos and Busquets.
Defensively France were playing a high line against Spain – something teams don’t usually do, although Fabregas isn’t going to win in a footrace against the central pairing of Sakho and Koscielny – but as the game progressed and Spain probed and probed, the French line got deeper and deeper until they were on the edge of their own penalty box. France would push up, regroup, and try to maintain a line around 35 yards high. Then Spain would attack again by overloading the left flank, with Alba overlapping and Iniesta’s running, and France would be conceding territory again.
In addition to playing a high line, France were playing very narrow, with occasionally both Menez and Ribery appearing in central midfield areas together. The French game plan of suffocating and frustrating their opponents could be said to have been broadly working until the Spanish goal. For all the Spanish possession and attacking play with Iniesta down the left flank, the Spanish goal came through the un-tiki-taka approach of a good delivery from a corner. Sergio Ramos lost his marker, Mamadou Sakho, and crashed a header against the post, before reacting quicker than Sakho or Koscielny, stabbing home when Pedro whipped the ball back into the 6-yard box.
The first fifteen minutes of the second half were almost identical to what had gone before: more possession for Spain and more long balls to Ribery and Benzema for France. Then one senses that Deschamps had seen enough; 0-1 down away from home, and I guess you don’t lose any more points for 0-1 than you do for 0-2.
In the 57th minute something quite remarkable occurred. Deschamps took off Maxime Gonalons, his ‘holder’ and most defensive of the three midfielders, and brought on Mathieu Valbuena to play behind Karim Benzema. Obviously a positive substitution in the 57th minute isn’t remarkable in itself, but the effect was profound, and it would be no exaggeration to say that the game immediately changed as from this point on as France suddenly looked dangerous. Indeed, within seconds, Benzema won a header from a long free kick, nodding down to Valbuena who flicked the ball to Ribery on the left wing. Ribery knocked it back to an advancing Evra, then the pair played a quick one-two by the left touchline before Evra drove to the edge of Spain’s penalty box; after a challenge from Alonso the ball broke for Ribery, who hit a quick shot into the side netting. The best French move by far came within seconds of Valbuena’s arrival. From the resulting goal kick, France won the ball back and the same trio of Evra, Ribery, and Valbuena, drifting from the centre to the left, attacked Spain again. Oddly, the vast majority of France’s play became a replica of Spain’s from the first half: Valbuena drifting to the left, and with Ribery and Evra, overloading Spain’s defence in that area. Menez wasn’t invisible on the right, but the play was all down the left, and this time it was France doing the attacking.
France were now a 4-2-3-1 with Valbuena behind Benzema, but given licence (or orders) to roam to the left. In addition, Matuidi and Cabaye seemed more comfortable playing as a pair in front of the back four, particularly Matuidi, who in the second half put in a commanding midfield performance, robbing Xavi of the ball on a few occasions with some wonderful anticipation. In short, France looked like a team transformed and started to take the game to Spain.
La fatigue espagnole
In what can be described as a lucky synchronicity for the French, as Valbuena entered the fray Spain started to tire, particularly Iniesta; he ceased making the runs of the first half and played much more as an orthodox central midfielder, content to play the ball to Xavi or Pedro, or back to Alonso, rather than to attack the French defence directly. Xabi Alonso also seemed exhausted – it’s worth noting that at Real Madrid he has Sami Khedira alongside him, and for Spain he must have missed Busquets’ presence in midfield doing the ‘dirty work’ and so alleviating his defensive duties. Valbuena also made a telling defensive contribution by picking up Alonso, and with not so much time on the ball Alonso’s distribution started to suffer.
As fatigue set in, both sides started to defend a little deeper, and the game became a bit more stretched. Noticeable was the lack of pressing from the Spanish forwards, whereas Benzema, Ribery, and Menez were still diligent in their pressing and defensive duties. Thus, alongside a fresh Valbuena, the French front-line were able to pressure Spain and regain possession, whereas in the first half with only Ribery-Benzema-Menez they simply didn’t have enough bodies as Spain cycled the ball easily through defence and midfield out to the left flank.
By now there was a real role-reversal. France were stringing passes together and generating the majority of their attacking play down the left flank, whereas Spain had started to use long passes for Pedro to chase, and yet in the 68th minute as France gained control of the game and started to seriously press for an equaliser, Menez was replaced by Moussa Sissoko. A powerful box-to-box player comfortable anywhere in central midfield, Sissoko is more of a Yaya Toure-type of player, but here his remit was as a right-winger. It was one of the game’s stranger decisions; Deschamps must have wanted fresh legs to attack Spain, but was perhaps conscious of how threatening Spain had been to France’s right flank throughout the match (although by now that threat was becoming limited to long passes, usually from Alonso, looking for runs from Pedro). Full of energy, Sissoko started coming inside to pick up Iniesta, then tracking the runs of Jordi Alba, at one point even finding himself in the right-back position as Debuchy stepped forward to check Pedro.
This gave France a slightly lopsided look, as even when Spain were continually attacking down their left wing, at least they had attacking players (Pedro then Cazorla) on the right. Now France were in the ascendancy, Deschamps brought on a defensively-minded player to shore up their troublesome flank. For all the solidity it certainly gave France, Sissoko later missed two wonderful opportunities to equalise, opportunities where you felt Menez would have done better.
However, before that in the 68th minute, Spain nearly scored a second. And once more, it was from a good delivery at a corner, with Ramos cleverly taking advantage of the man-marking to escape Sakho before heading just over. If Ramos’ header had gone in, what followed would have been difficult to imagine, but now a French equaliser started to seem a real possibility.
Spain’s pressing became much more limited for the last 20 minutes, they were sitting deep, and France were attacking down the left, through the middle, and even on the right. Torres was brought on for a clearly tired Iniesta, which meant Cazorla coming to central midfield, Fabregas going to the right (where he was just as anonymous as he had been as a central forward), and Torres playing through the middle.
Yet still France attacked relentlessly, impressively their energy levels didn’t falter, and when Spain had the ball, they fell back into a disciplined 4-4-1-1 with Valbuena marking Alonso. Spain’s possession in the attacking third of the game became a pale shadow of their previous play, almost lazily passing the ball around, with little overlapping from Alba, and Xavi and Alonso tiring badly in midfield.
Then, just as hope seemed to be gone, and with Giroud on in the 87th minute for Benzema, a lazy mistake from substitute Juanfran gifted France possession; there was a quick pass from Sissoko out to Ribery on the left flank, and after a quick glance the Bayern winger chipped a beautifully weighted cross for Giroud to nod in. It was nothing less than France deserved, not quite dominating the second half as Spain had the first, but clearly the better team for the final 30 minutes.
Looking ahead to Tuesday
In the two matches that followed Valbuena’s arrival in the second half against Spain (a 2-1 win over Italy and the 2-1 defeat to Germany) Deschamps ditched the 4-3-3 he’d been previously using, and adopted the 4-2-3-1 from the second half against Spain: Benzema as a central striker, Valbuena playing as a #10 just behind, Ribery on the left, and persisting with Sissoko as a defensive winger on the right.
It’s difficult to read too much into this, playing the three strongest sides in Europe (if not the World) one after another is a daunting task, and against a weaker side, Georgia on Friday, Deschamps went with a 4-4-2, partnering Benzema and Giroud up front, with Ribery and Valbuena on the wings.
But Georgia aren’t Spain. Sacrificing the midfield for ‘two up top’ against Spain could be suicide. Deschamps made a brave but tactically astute change in the Spain game by bringing on Valbuena, but 4-4-2 against Spain is inviting trouble, it’s brave but it’s not clever. An option would be the forward line that started against Belarus in September, Giroud as the central striker, with Benzema on the right flank and Ribery left, but this perhaps wastes Benzema.
With Spain drawing at home to Finland on Friday, and France now topping the group by two points after four games, Deschamps would probably settle for 0-0 on Tuesday (a victory in Paris and France may well be out of sight at the top of Group I). So with that in mind I would expect Deschamps to revert to his game plan from the game against Spain in October. A 4-3-3 (4-1-4-1 when defending) with Ribery and Valbuena flanking Benzema, and perhaps Paul Pogba retaining his place in the side from the game against Georgia. More athletic than Cabaye, his energy might outweigh his inexperience and prove necessary in stemming those Spanish attacks down the flank. However, if France are behind at half-time, expect to see Valbuena shifted to the centre, with orders to drift to the left to link up with Ribery, and Sissoko brought on as a defensive winger for the French right flank. Get ready, we could well be seeing a replay of that 90 minutes in Madrid last October.