Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba ensured France get their World Cup off to a winning start but questions abound over the conservative tactics employed by Didier Deschamps and the way his superior French team struggled to create chances against an Australian side that barely managed to make it to Russia.
Deschamps started with a three-man attack comprising of Ousmane Dembele, Kylian Mbappe and Griezmann with Pogba and Corentin Tolisso operating on either side of N'Golo Kante in the midfield. Surprisingly, the 1998 World Cup-winning captain opted to start with a relatively defensive-minded Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard at the fullback positions ahead of the more attacking Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe.
Hernandez and Pavard barely contributed going forward with none of their attempted four crosses finding their targets. With a three-man midfield and a conservative full-back pairing, the onus of manufacturing chances rested on the front three and they couldn't deliver for most of the match.
Socceroos coach Bert van Marwijk set his team up to deny the French front three space to attack and his plans almost won him a credible point. The Aussie back four of Josh Risdon, Mark Milligan, Trent Sainsbury and Aziz Behich sat as deep as they could without parking the bus. With no marauding full-backs to deal with, the Aussie defence managed to restrict France to only six attempts on goal with only two of them — off which France scored — coming after eight minutes.
With no Olivier Giroud, France looked to use the explosive pace of Mbappe and Dembele to create chances but what the Australian defence lacked in pace, they made up in defensive positioning. After the initial flurry of attacks from Les Bleus in the opening exchanges where Mbappe, Griezmann and Pogba had shots on goal, the match settled into a pattern of France trying to breach the solid Australian defence and failing. From running at defenders to threading in through balls into the Australian box, France did everything they could. The way Van Marwijk set up his defence gave little space for Le Bleus to exploit and any through or long balls were either dealt with by the defence or went through to Matt Ryan in goal.
Between the three of them, Risdon, Milligan and Sainsbury had 26 interceptions, more than the entire French team combined. Sainsbury, in particular, made some important interceptions, notably in the 29th minute when he nicked the ball off Griezmann's feet just as the Atletico man was about to pull the trigger from 10 yards out.
For all their defensive solidity, Australia had nothing to show going forward. Tomas Rogic, operating as a No 10 behind striker Andrew Nabbout, had a torrid time dealing with Kante. The diminutive Chelsea midfielder bossed Rogic in the middle of the park, snuffing out Australian counters before they could threaten the defence behind him.
Australia's only chances came off set pieces and they nearly took the lead from one in the 17th minute when Aaron Mooy swung in a delightful free-kick from the left, only for Hugo Lloris to make a superb save. The Spurs skipper dived low to his left to prevent an own goal even as Sainsbury looked to tap in the rebound. The first half ended goalless with Australia going into the break happier of the two teams.
Australia maintained their defensive shape in the second half but a lapse in concentration was exploited by the French. Kante won the ball in midfield and found Pogba who threaded in a beautifully weighted pass to Griezmann. Risdon was caught napping as he brought down Griezmann just inside the box. Though denied a penalty by the referee, France became the first team at the World Cup to be awarded a penalty after intervention from the VAR. Griezmann, who had barely had a say in the match, made no mistake from the spot.
The Socceroos levelled four minutes later after Samuel Umtiti handled the ball in the box to gift Australia a penalty which Mile Jedinak duly converted. That was the only error that the French defence committed against Australia. That Australia rarely mounted any attacks to put them under pressure helped Raphael Varane and Co but sterner tests await them against Denmark and Peru.
The introduction of Giroud saw France get a target man upfront capable of harrying the Aussie defence and he took little time to make his mark. With his back towards goal, the Chelsea man was found by a rapidly advancing Pogba. Giroud took one touch before his second setup Pogba to score. Technology again went in France's favour as goal-line technology ruled that Pogba shot landed inside the goal before bouncing out. France held on to grab all three points in their opener.
Though they won, the style with which they went about it will cause concern for France fans. For all their talent and positional flexibility, the front three of Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele rarely combined to threaten the Aussie defence. At club and country, Giroud has shown his ability to combine with a secondary striker — Eden Hazard at Chelsea and Griezmann for France — while getting wingers into play. Against a deep-lying and physically dominant Aussie defence, Didier Deschamps missed a trick by not starting with Giroud.
Against what is probably the weakest team in their group, by playing a conservative team, Deschamps and France missed a chance to get off to an explosive start in Russia. Rather than establish their credentials as favourites, France's tame start to the tournament leaves a lot to be desired.
Updated Date: Jun 17, 2018 11:01:40 IST