France’s 4-2-3-1 flops
Didier Deschamps’ last dalliance with 4-2-3-1, prior to May’s warm-up friendlies, saw his France side crash to an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to Albania in June 2015.
The French manager’s memory must be as short as his passing range, as the same configuration completely failed to threaten the same unheralded opposition in the first half at Stade Vélodrome on Wednesday night.
Deschamps’ late decision to shift Payet into the number ten position clinched a dramatic last gasp victory over Romania on the opening day, when the West Ham United midfielder popped up between the lines to execute a potential goal of the tournament.
That stroke of good fortune encouraged the French manager to ditch 4-3-3 for his side’s second fixture, with Paul Pogba the unlucky central midfielder omitted to accommodate Payet’s “permanent” move into the centre.
Deschamps also made another tactical alteration on the right of midfield, with inside forward Antoine Griezmann replaced by the width of Kingsley Coman. With both wide players looking to come inside, and two ageing full backs incapable of fully compensating, France had looked frustratingly narrow against the Romanians.
Despite Coman’s presence on the right touchline offering France a different option, the hosts again looked completely dysfunctional in a 4-2-3-1 against a resolute Albanian 4-1-4-1. France had no depth to their play, with neither Payet nor Blaise Matuidi making forward runs in advance of the wasteful Olivier Giroud.
Incredibly, Deschamps also made things even easier for Gianni de Biasi’s side by instructing his players to operate a low block. Perhaps mindful of the number of chances Albania fashioned with simple balls in behind a high Swiss defensive line, Deschamps’ choice of press allowed his opponents to advance out of their own half under no pressure.
Indeed, the Albanians posed a marginally greater attacking threat in a first half of zero shots on target, with overlapping right back Elseid Hysaj again a highlight.
Anthony Martial, who, as France’s left winger, was supposed to track Hysaj, was mercilessly hooked at half-time in favour of Pogba, as Deschamps admitted defeat and reverted to 4-3-3.
Although Sagna nearly turned into his own net from another Hysaj cross early on, France immediately looked an infinitely more functional attacking unit. With N’Golo Kanté now the sole holder, Pogba and Matuidi finally added depth to the French attack, providing presence in the box and overloading Albania in wide areas.
Were it not for Giroud’s aerial profligacy from left wing crosses, France might have won the game earlier than they did. Instead, it was left to substitute Griezmann to avail of an injury to centre back Arlind Ajeti, by getting ahead of his replacement Frederic Veseli to head home France’s first shot on target.
Albania, whose attacking threat – Hysaj aside – was limited to attempts at isolating Patrice Evra in the air under long balls (a tactic that failed utterly, with Evra winning a massive 17 out of 20 duels), duly overcommitted and were caught again, on the break, by Payet in the dying seconds.
Russia’s midfield muddle
The first half of Russia’s meeting with Slovakia was equally dull, with both sides taking a fairly circumspect approach to proceedings.
Despite an opening game defeat to Wales, Slovakia were again happy to sit deep in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with a view to threatening exclusively on the counter-attack. Meanwhile, Leonid Slutskiy’s Russia were only marginally more attack-minded, but hampered greatly by poor selections in the centre of midfield.
The Russian’s build up play was painfully slow in the first half, with little hope of breaking down the massed Slovakian ranks in front of them. Centre backs Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutskiy were the game’s top passers, with the inexperienced midfield duo of Aleksander Golovin and Roman Neustadter failing to provide passing angles to facilitate their side’s brisk advancement.
Indeed, Russia’s best chances arrived on the rare occasions they were allowed to break themselves, with Slovakia’s problems in the holding midfield department continuing; Viktor Pecovsky looked just as ill-equipped to perform the role as his predecessor Patrik Hrosovsky.
Jan Kozak’s smart strategy of troubling Slutskiy’s slow centre backs with balls in behind the Russian full backs paid off for Weiss’ opener, with a Hamsik stunner doubling his side’s advantage before half-time.
Then, Slutskiy acted dramatically at the break, removing both Golovin and Neustadter in favour of the more experienced duo of Denis Glushakov and Pavel Manaev. To the surprise of no-one, the speed of Russia’s passing from back to front improved immediately, with attacking right back Igor Smolnikov’s game benefiting greatly from his side’s more regular forays into the final third.
Kozak brought on left back Dusan Svento to shut him down, but his central midfield problem soon cost him, when the awful Juraj Kucka failed to track Glushakov, who headed home Oleg Shatov’s left wing cross.
By this point, Slutskiy had also introduced 34-year-old Roman Shirokov in the number ten position, completing an all-new central midfield. Shirokov popped up unmarked between the lines in the penultimate minute of normal time to feed target man Artem Dzyuba, but Tomas Hubocan stepped up to make a vital block and earn the three points for an ultimately fortunate Slovakia.
Kozak will need to sort out his structural issues in the centre of midfield if his side are to build on this victory, while Slutskiy will likely replace his entirely in an attempt to prevent Monday’s clash with Wales from being an ignominious swansong to his time at the national helm.