Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Little of the laudatory coverage hailing Roberto Martinez’s apparent tactical victory over Brazil made any sense. Belgium’s haphazard hybrid shape offered up chance after chance to Tite’s wasteful troops on Friday. France, just as defensively sound as Brazil here, simply did not suffer the Selecao‘s incredible misfortune. Finally, therefore, Martinez was made to pay for his hubris-fueled tactical codology.
Belief in his own brilliance unshaken, Martinez persisted with his Brazil-besting hodgepodge despite Thomas Meunier’s absence. With no recognised wing-backs available, returning both Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen to the full-back roles they often occupied for predecessor Marc Wilmots seemed the sensible option.
Instead, Martinez moved Nacer Chadli from one hybrid role to another. Having divided his time between central midfield and left-wing-back against Brazil, Chadli was fielded here as right-back in defence and a right-wing-back in attack. The West Brom attacker, remember, made just two Premier League starts in 2017/18; both in his natural left-of-midfield position.
Unsurprisingly, France were only too happy to let Chadli have the ball. With nominal left-sided midfielder Blaise Matuidi tucked in, Didier Deschamps’ ultra-compact 4-4-2 barred midfield passage to such an extent that right-wing crosses became the Red Devils’ only real option. Chadli’s quality of delivery, both from open-play and at set-pieces, was putrid. Of the eight first-half crosses Belgium attempted from the right flank, only one from Kevin de Bruyne caused any trouble.
Drifting wide from his inside-right starting position, the Manchester City man unleashed a whipped delivery that bamboozled the otherwise imperious Samuel Umtiti. Romelu Lukaku, whose statue-like performance didn’t help Belgium’s choked-off midfield, couldn’t make the required connection. Lukaku took only 11 first-half touches; none of which were effected in the French penalty-area.
Belgium’s system, 4-3-3 in defence and 3-4-2-1 in attack, was presumably designed to overload Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté. But Matuidi redressed the balance with another super-effective defensive display; topping both the tackles and interceptions charts. Deschamps’ strikers, too, helped the cause greatly by dropping goalside of Belgium’s holding midfield: comprised of just Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembélé when the Red Devils were on the attack.
Martinez’s men, therefore, resorted to lots of aimless passing around the halfway line. By way of illustration, all four Belgian defenders topped the half-time list for touches of the football. More often than not, Chadli received the ball at the end of these fruitless combinations; and invariably lost it again, too. The winger-by-trade turned the ball over seven times in total. Only Olivier Giroud, performing his best Stephane Guivarc’h impression since the group stage, managed to lose the ball more often.
Although eminently comfortable in defence, France did have some trouble getting their attacking transitions going. Key to this failure was Belgium’s aggressive counter-press, designed to prevent France from doing what they did to Argentina on the break. The Red Devils lived up to their billing by committing six of their seven first-half fouls in the France half. By hook or illegal crook, the likes of Kylian Mbappé would not be allowed to clamber aboard their counterattacking bikes.
Belgium even created a decent chance out of this tactic, when a rushed clearance from Hugo Lloris was headed Eden Hazard’s way by Dembélé. But, when France bypassed the press, Martinez’s unnecessarily complex instructions left his side incredibly vulnerable at the back.
While Belgium may have begun with a midfield five in defensive situations, this level of security did not persist throughout. The switch of shape at defensive transitions, from 3-4-2-1 back to 4-3-3, proved too difficult to execute reliably, with both Hazard and de Bruyne particularly slow to reassume their positions. Belgium, therefore, were often forced to cope with four defenders and just three midfielders; as seen against Brazil.
This frailty proved crucial prior to Umtiti’s corner-kick decider. French left-back Lucas Hernandez advanced freely, without de Bruyne, before picking out Matuidi’s brilliant diagonal run. Natural attacker Chadli, unsurprisingly drawn out to Hernandez, had left the inside-left channel wide open for the Juventus midfielder.
On paper, Matuidi should have been Chadli’s man; but, in practice, it was right-sided central midfielder Witsel who let the tucked-in Frenchman go. Giroud’s shot, from the resultant pull-back, was blocked behind, and Umtiti did the rest. Had de Bruyne been in place in front of Chadli, opportunity likely would not have knocked for the Barcelona centre-back.
And that wasn’t the first time France pierced Belgium’s high defensive line either; nor would it be the last. Both right-sided Frenchmen, Mbappé and Benjamin Pavard, connected with through-balls in the first-half, too. The former squared for Giroud, who executed a pathetic effort. And the latter failed in one-on-one battle with Thibaut Courtois. Both were huge chances, both resulting from the failure of Belgium’s understaffed midfield to apply pressure. France, in truth, should have been out of sight by half-time.
Facing elimination, Martinez tried a couple of tricks to get his attack functioning efficiently; one of which was absolutely hilarious. Marouane Fellaini, fielded on Neymar’s side against Brazil, was instead fielded on the left of Belgium’s midfield trio here; presumably with designs on helping Vertonghen with the much speedier Mbappé.
In practice, however, Fellaini was caught ahead of the ball too often to assist his overwhelmed left-back. Holding midfielder Dembélé, who bafflingly escaped a caution for accumulation, was often forced into emergency action instead. Fellaini was more concerned with taking up the left-sided number-10 positions in which he often excelled during Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United tenure.
Until, that is, his boss decided that Hazard — a wing-back in the attacking phase to begin with — needed to get in the game more. Midway through the first-half, therefore, Hazard and Fellaini swapped positions when Belgium were on the attack, leading to the ludicrous sight of the bouffant-haired beanpole running the left-touchline; where he would remain until Yannick Carrasco’s 80th-minute introduction.
Earlier, Martinez had also thrown on the right-sided Dries Mertens, in an effort to get his other star de Bruyne on the ball more. The playmaker duly joined Witsel at the base of Belgium’s midfield. But this reunion only opened Belgium’s middle up further, as seen against Japan, and Mbappé took full advantage on the break. Giroud, once again, managed to fluff a huge chance his dynamic young teammate fashioned.
Ultimately, the waste mattered not anyway. Belgium’s attack never looked like conjuring an equaliser, although the quality of their incessant right-wing crossing improved upon Mertens’ arrival. France substitute Corentin Tolisso could even afford to miss a late gilt-edged chance, just minutes after Deschamps had shut up shop even further with a Steven Nzonzi-centred 4-1-4-1.
Doubts still linger over both France and their manager, who has taken six years to hit upon a balanced-looking side. The industry of Matuidi on the left complements Mbappé’s right-wing explosiveness beautifully, allowing Griezmann to fill the number-10 role from which he fired France to the Euro 2016 final. Pogba, too, looks transformed, freed by both Kanté and Matuidi to play the ball-carrying playmaker role in which he so excelled at Juventus.
Whoever emerges from the other semi-final will have a real game on their hands on Sunday afternoon. Neither England nor Croatia, who both prefer to play on the front foot, will relish trying to contain France’s counterattacking force. The magnificent Mbappé, who created a game-high six chances here, may have yet another height to scale before this thrilling tournament is through.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112