1) At the risk of being sent to the tower to be forced to listen to the 2010 version of Three Lions featuring Russell Brand and Robbie Williams for all eternity, that felt like a World Cup final. Whichever one of Croatia or England progress on Wednesday evening should enter Sunday’s game against France with some trepidation.
This was a pulsating, tingling semi-final, as any game of such magnitude should be but sadly so few are. There was a definite Premier League feel – unsurprising when 14 of the 22 starters play in that league – in that there seemed to be a huge number of things going on within ten seconds of one another. When you have to wait two or three minutes just to see a replay of a semi-controversial incident or shot, you know the intensity is high.
If Belgium cannot stop France, few can. If there was any doubt that France and Belgium were the best two teams left in the competition, there can be no more. This was a game of high-level attack vs defence, Belgium pushing and France waiting for their moment to strike like a cross between chess and a gladiatorial contest. France waited, pounced and then produced a display of defensive resilience that is almost unmatched in this tournament.
When you watch France in this balanced pomp, all attacking swagger and defensive stout, you question why you ever doubted them at all. On Tuesday their front three was better than Brazil’s, the central defence was better than Uruguay’s and the central midfield better than Croatia’s. The only relative unknown in the team, Benjamin Pavard, has been the breakout star of the entire tournament.
This has been an exhilarating World Cup, but it would be a shame if France were able to brush aside their final opponents. Belgium put up an honest and admirable attempt, but there is not squad as deep nor side as complete as Didier Deschamps’ France. This is two major tournament finals in succession. He and they must go one step further in 2018.
2) The most frightening thing about this French team is that you still think a more astute coach than Deschamps might be able to get more out of them. Antoine Griezmann could be tamed a little more from his tendency to shoot, Blaise Matuidi could link with a fit Benjamin Mendy and Ousmane Dembele could become the central striker when he is more rounded.
Fifteen of the 23 players in Deschamps squad are aged 25 or under. Kingsley Coman, Adrien Rabiot, Kurt Zouma, Lucas Digne, Layvin Kurzawa and Anthony Martial meet the same criteria and are not even in Russia. Houssem Aouar, Maxime Lopez, Jean-Kévin Augustin, Issa Diop and Lucas Tousart are all breaking through. France are going to get better, and that’s a little worrying for everyone else.
3) For Belgium, what might have been but very few regrets. Journalist Kristof Terreur spoke pre-tournament about the fear in Belgium that this team might fall flat on its face in Russia, again flattering to deceive as Golden Generation became fool’s gold.
That hasn’t happened. Eden Hazard has been magnificent, Romelu Lukaku produced the performance against Brazil that many said he could never produce, and Kevin de Bruyne excelled when picked in a system that helped him flourish. Against France there were simply too many gaps – central midfield and right-back in particular – where the opposition were stronger. The star players are there; the depth isn’t.
But there is no shame in being eliminated by France, or in reaching the semi-finals. Roberto Martinez has improved his standing, and none of the three attacking players listed above will have turned 30 by the time Euro 2020 comes around. They could yet have another shot at glory.
4) During his time at Everton, the accusation levelled at Martinez was that he was capable of organising a team to play wonderful, cohesive, attacking football, but struggled to prepare a defence adequately. In 2015/16, his last season at Goodison, Everton conceded 55 league goals. Only the bottom five teams (Bournemouth, Sunderland, Norwich, Aston Villa and Newcastle) conceded more.
Martinez has always preferred to use a back three, and he was determined to do the same with Belgium. The issue is that Belgium didn’t have enough wing-back options, and certainly none as ideal for that role as Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman. During this tournament, Thomas Meunier has played the right-sided role well, while wingers Yannick Carrasco or Nacer Chadli have tried to make the left side work.
The suspension of Meunier for the semi-final made things tricky, but it is a little farcical that a team can be missing one player from a 23-man squad and be sent completely out of whack tactically. It doesn’t say much for the squad selection that there was no obvious option.
It’s also generally not a good thing if people see your team sheet and cannot agree on which formation you are playing. FIFA’s official World Cup account reckoned that Chadli would play on the right and De Bruyne would play as a left wing-back, something that sounded patently ridiculous. Others said that it would be a back four, with Toby Alderweireld at right-back and Chadli as a regulation left-back. The Belgian team’s Twitter account put Mousa Dembele on the right with Chadli left.
5) In fact, none of those were right. Chadli actually looked like he was playing as a right wing-back with Jan Vertonghen playing at left-back in a very lopsided 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, presumably because Mbappe is far more of a danger on the counter than Matuidi.
But whichever way Belgium were going to play, the point was clear: Martinez is a man who makes tactical decisions that draw attention and criticism. One way or another, he was going to be remembered in the biggest match of his coaching career.
6) The phrase ‘intriguing tactical battle’ is generally a euphemism for a bad football match, but this time we mean it was an intriguing tactical battle. The first half went past in what felt like 20 minutes as we were captivated by both managers’ tactical strategies to counter their opposition. This was proof that you don’t need lots of goals for a match to be entertaining.
Belgium’s plan, as is true of all good Martinez teams, was to push onto the front foot as soon as possible. Eden Hazard and De Bruyne surged forward either side of Marouane Fellaini, who was a kind of No. 10 lighthouse around which yachts sailed merrily in the breeze.
France’s plan was to soak up the Belgian pressure before hitting them on the counter attack. The general consensus is that playing attacking football makes you more courageous, but in France’s case the opposite was true. Backing your defence to thwart Belgium’s brilliant attack (13 goals in five matches in this World Cup) takes some strength of character and faith.
7) Perhaps unsurprisingly given their domination of territory, Belgium created the better chances before half-time. Hazard flashed a shot wide of Hugo Lloris’ far post before Alderweireld forced Lloris into a stretching diving save, getting two gloves to the ball and sending it wide of the post. Hazard then had another shot which deflected off a French head and flew just over Lloris’ crossbar.
But in the midst of all that, we saw France’s plan come to life. N’Golo Kante robbed the ball off a Belgian attacker and immediately fed Paul Pogba. He left Dembele paying for his ticket in the wrong car park, selling him with a move of his body while the ball was allowed to roll straight. Pogba’s subsequent through ball was almost perfect, releasing Kylian Mbappe but with a fraction too much weight for France’s sprinter to get a toe to the ball and lift it over Thibaut Courtois.
8) It’s late enough in the tournament to draw watertight conclusions, and one of those is that the referees have been incredibly lenient with the issuing of yellow cards.
That’s no bad thing, really. With players suspended for the semi-final for receiving two bookings in five tense, highly-strung matches, there is always a danger that several high-profile names miss out for infrequent mistimed tackles. That seems unfair.
But there is also a danger of going too far the other way, and increased leniency also increases the opportunity for teams to commit cynical tactical fouls and get away with them. In the first half, Dembele committed one foul in the centre circle and then later pulled back Pogba when he was 30 yards from goal and breaking forward.
In the Premier League, that would have been a booking every time, and rightly so. Committing that foul and stopping that attack without being cautioned makes it a no-brainer. The advantage actually lies with the defending team.
9) For all the cat-and-mouse in open play, with both teams pushing each other to the limit in attack and defence, it was inevitable that the only goal would come from a set piece. This is World Cup 2018 after all, a tournament of set-piece glory. Of the 158 goals scored, 69 have been from set pieces. Nice.
Samuel Umtiti is an interesting central defender. He is a little reminiscent of David Luiz in style, capable of being excellent for 89 minutes but throwing in the odd error. It is as if his concentration suffers because he’s so naturally proficient that he gets sloppy. See the bizarre slip and slide that almost created a chance for Argentina in the last-16 tie.
But you cannot doubt Umtiti’s heading ability, and when you watch his movement for the winner it’s hard to believe that he’s never scored more than one goal in a league season in his career. The header was steered across Courtois, who was unable to get near it.
10) There is a fallacy that Fellaini is good at set pieces. That’s actually only half-true. On a recent BT Sport podcast, former Arsenal player and tactical analyst Adrian Clarke spoke about Fellaini’s weakness being defending at set pieces, while his strength lies in the opposition penalty area. Clarke’s accusation was that Fellaini suffers from lapses in concentration, which can lead to him losing his man or not following a run quickly enough.
That weakness was exploited on the biggest stage. Umtiti lost Alderweireld, but Fellaini was on zonal marking duty in front of the post. As soon as the corner was delivered into that area of the penalty box, it was Fellaini’s responsibility to get his head on the ball first.
Watch the slow-motion replay again, and you’ll see that Fellaini sets off a little slowly. It allows Umtiti to get a clear run on the ball and meet it at virtually the same time as Fellaini. Had Fellaini been a little quicker to move, the ball would have been cleared. Of course this is hyper-critical, but those are the differences when magnificent players face each other.
11) Having taken the lead, France had two options:
a) Allow Belgium to throw more players forward and look to kill the game off on the counter attack by keeping one of Matuidi or Pogba high to link defence and attack.
b) Allow Belgium to throw more players forward and shut up shop, with both Matuidi and Pogba as deep as Kante and looking for attackers only with long clearances.
Deschamps and France went for the latter, and made it work largely thanks to a monumental defensive performance from Raphael Varane. It was Diego Godin and Fabio Cannavaro-esque, Varane rising to double his normal size in one of the biggest matches of his career. He was the rock.
Varane might play for one of the biggest clubs in the world, but his career has yet to truly take off. There were suspicions that Zinedine Zidane might be happy to part with him, and the central defender has still never played more than 27 matches in a league season thanks to injury and rotation. Watching him making tackles, reading play and winning headers against Belgium, a true leader by example, that seemed faintly ludicrous. Surely Julen Lopetegui will build his Real Madrid defence around him.
12) On the quiet, Pogba has had an excellent World Cup. I use those first three words not just as conversational cliche, but because they describe Pogba’s tournament perfectly.
The general notion with Pogba is that he is a dynamic midfielder, one who is at his best when there’s lots of ‘doing’ being done. Shots, free-kicks, dribbles, sprints and tackles; Pogba is the action man midfielder who can do it all in both halves of the pitch. His image, height and sheer aura reinforce this notion. He is a superstar.
But France don’t need Pogba to do that. They have Kante to make tackles and interceptions, Mbappe to stream up the pitch and Antoine Griezmann to dribble and play wonderful one-twos. They need Pogba to be the one who weaves this wonderful attack and brilliant holding midfield together. No shots from range or grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck, just recycling possession, constantly looking to move the ball forward and sparking counter attacks.
Pogba has been less obvious for France than he is for Manchester United, but he has been far more effective. In the blue shirt of his country, he is an efficient, smooth midfielder with no bells or whistles.
13) For all the talk of Martinez’s tinkering, the Dembele experiment really did not work and so was a significant mistake. The problem with picking a player for a semi-final who has started only one other match in the tournament – and that a friendly against England – is that there is an inherent risk of them not being up on the pace of those around them.
And so it proved. Dembele committed several fouls, was incredibly fortunate not to be booked and lacked the composure with the ball and presence without that he does for Tottenham. It is no surprise that he was the first player substituted by Martinez.
14) Giroud has a selfless role to play in this French team, not dissimilar to Stephane Guivarc’h’s in the team that won the World Cup in 1998. He is the target man and facilitator, taking in the ball and laying it off to those brilliant players around him, but Giroud is also useful at defensive set pieces and will look to win free-kicks when France are trying to run down the minutes. There is nobody else who does the same job in their squad.
But we can praise Giroud’s excellence in those areas while still being incredibly frustrated by his finishing. Giroud has hit the target with none of his 13 shots in this World Cup. He is the only one of the 84 players to have attempted five or more shots at the tournament who is yet to hit the target.
Would France be better with Alexandre Lacazette in the same role? No. Does Deschamps and every French man and woman wish that Giroud’s finishing could be more exact? God yes.
15) He fell away slightly in the last 20 minutes after some typically physical treatment, but this was another night in Russia on which Hazard stated his case to be considered on the plane below Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. At times it felt like he and Mbappe were wrestling to be first to the coronation.
This is true in a very literal sense too. With Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus announced shortly before the game began, Real Madrid will surely be in the market for an attacking superstar to replace the great man.
In Mbappe they have the superstardom and raw speed, but Hazard could well be the mildly-priced – and still brilliant – option. Watching him slalom his way past Pavard in the first 30 minutes as Belgium tried to establish dominance, you did half-wonder if he considered this the perfect shop window.
Still, this is going to be Kylian Mbappe’s world. And there’s absolutely nothing you nor Hazard can can do about it.
I don't trust anyone who doesn't love Kylian Mbappe pic.twitter.com/UOPrzc6kUx
— Ryan Rosenblatt (@RyanRosenblatt) July 10, 2018
16) In 2014, Kante was playing for Caen in the second tier. Since then he has won two Premier League titles, the FA Cup, twice been named in the Premier League Team of the Year, twice been named the best player by his teammates in title wins for Chelsea and Leicester City and on Sunday will have a chance to win the World Cup.
He is a very special player. We took Claude Makelele for granted, and now we are doing the same with Kante. This French team could not work without him, and there is nobody better in the world at doing what he does with the energy that he does it.
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