Set-pieces and left back zone are problems for fragile France
Prior to last Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Scotland, Didier Deschamps’ France conceded six goals in three games against the Netherlands, Russia and Cameroon. Romania, a side whose limited attacking ambition secured them only 11 goals in 10 qualification games, also managed to expose the hosts’ glaring defensive frailties.
Striker Florin Andone, of little Cordoba in Spain, was thrice allowed to flick corner-kicks on at the near post. Les Bleus failed to learn the lessons of the first instance, in the 4th minute, when Bogdan Stancu somehow contrived to cream Hugo Lloris with the ball from point-blank range.
Stancu missed another clear-cut chance early in the second half, when Blaise Matuidi failed to vacate his penalty area and played the former Galatasaray winger onside. Later, the abject Patrice Evra capped a ragged performance by conceding a penalty Phil Neville would have been proud of, for a foul on the creative Nicolae Stanciu. Romania may rue funneling a relative majority of their play down the left flank, rather than exerting greater pressure on the game’s most dribbled player.
Narrow French midfield crowded out by compact Romanians
Anghel Iordanescu pulled a minor tactical surprise by operating a high defensive line, rendering his side extremely compact from back to front. This placed an even greater premium on space in midfield, crowding out France’s narrow attack. With wide players Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezemann both naturally inclined to move inside, the hosts’ only out-balls were ageing full backs Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna. France’s only clear-cut chance of the first half resulted from a Sagna overlap and cross, which Griezmann initially failed to connect with, before eventually heading onto the post.
Romania’s high line was also appropriate against France’s lone striker Olivier Giroud, who flourishes with back to goal, but is unlikely to trouble the space in behind. A frustrated home side were reduced to centre back Adil Rami playing through passes to the Arsenal man, which hardly sounds like a potentially goal-laden strategy.
Payet’s move into the ten position key to French victory
Key to France’s late, late victory was Deschamps’ decision to switch from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 in the 77th minute. Anthony Martial arrived onto the Stade de France turf in a left-wing role, with Payet shuffled into his preferred number ten position. The French manager has been reluctant to experiment with this configuration again, after tasting a 1-0 defeat to Albania in June 2015 when he last trialed it. Here, with Romania sitting much deeper after their equalising penalty, changing Payet’s role paid off handsomely.
The West Ham midfielder had earlier found space in behind midfielder Mihai Pintilii to find Giroud with a through ball. In the 89th minute, with the Romanian defence even further away from its midfield unit, Payet struck again, finding space behind the other holding player Ovidiu Hoban to collect N’Golo Kanté’s pass and rifle home a potential goal of the tournament. Payet had added a goal to his earlier assist for Giroud’s opener; one of several excellent crosses from the first and second phases of corner kick situations. The Réunion native finished the game with eight key passes, five more than his nearest contender.
Kanté is the real deal
A late entrant to the French starting eleven, due to an injury to Lassana Diarra, there was much intrigue surrounding Kanté’s ability to excel in a possession-based side. The Leicester City midfielder emphatically dispelled any doubts about his adaptability, with a stunningly accomplished all-round midfield performance.
Kanté held dual mantles as the game’s joint-best defensive player and its best passer. Tied for combined tackles and interceptions with Vlad Chiriches at eight, and finishing with the highest pass success rate and the most passes completed (by far), Kanté served notice to Europe’s top clubs that his is the release clause that should be met by teams looking to make a real statement of intent.