FIFA World Cup 2018: How France won on strategy, while England’s tactics went horribly wrong

Just past midnight on the day England was playing Croatia in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup of 2018, I got a call from one of my former football trainees. “Sir,” he said, “Gareth Southgate’s set pieces and corners reminded me of you. I just thought of thanking you for what we learnt in football more than 15 years ago.”

This boy, who was once a feared defender in Mumbai’s elite division league, now drives fear into international travellers carrying contraband and narcotics. His call took me back to the time when our team — not the most talented in Mumbai — troubled some of the nationally ranked sides with our strategy (carefully worked out in closed door meetings) tactics and our set pieces.

Football is a simple game. The team that scores more goals than it concedes wins. Football strategy therefore involves planning how to score goals and how to stop the opposition from scoring. When there is more emphasis on the former, the team is said to play ‘attacking football’ and when a team is unduly concerned about giving away goals, it is ‘defensive’.

Be it at the local level or at the international level, set pieces and strategy play a huge role in the success that football teams achieve.

Both the World Cup semifinals, the France-Belgium encounter and the one between fancied England and Croatia, were won and lost because of the strategic brilliance and the tactical blunders of their coaches.

The disappointed Belgian goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois blamed the French tactics of scoring a goal and sitting back in defence for their defeat. He said, “France played like Panama.” Kevin De Bruyne, the brilliant Belgian midfielder who also plays for Manchester City, was however more realistic in his assessment. He believed that France played to a plan and executed it well.

Coming to the match itself, Romelu Lukaku was expected to trouble the French defence with his probing runs down the right of the box. He had been cleverly played as a wide forward by coach, Roberto Martinez against Brazil, helping him open up the defence and create space for Eden Hazard and De Bruyne to run through. This tactic failed miserably against the Frenchmen, when Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Hernandez and N’Golo Kante completely bottled him up.

Both the World Cup semifinals, the France-Belgium encounter and the one between fancied England and Croatia, were won and lost because of the strategic brilliance and the tactical blunders of their coaches. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Both the World Cup semifinals, the France-Belgium encounter and the one between fancied England and Croatia, were won and lost because of the strategic brilliance and the tactical blunders of their coaches. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Hazard, on the other hand was closely ‘marked’ by Paul Pogba leaving De Bruyne — playing as false 9, to do the donkey’s work in the midfield and at the top of the box. The supply line between Hazard and De Bruyne was thereby practically cut off. Pogba was also disciplined enough to fall back and help the defence whenever needed.

France’s strategy was plain and simple: Defend deep and deny space to Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne, while allowing Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann to break away and create attacks to keep the Belgian defence busy and honest.  A plan superbly executed, after Umtiti had put them ahead from a corner. It was a tactical win for Didier Deschamps over Martinez.

Losing is now a dirty word in football. Million-dollar managers, coaches and players lose their jobs overnight after failures. Therefore, you no longer see the free-flowing style of the Brazilians of the yesteryear nor do you see the tiki-taka of the Spaniards succeeding anymore. Modern football is a mixture of both, with stodgy defending and breakaway attacks.

The modern defensive style isn’t dissimilar to the Cattenacio tactics of the Italians of the mid-20th century. Inter Milan had then successfully changed the ‘libero’ position of the Swiss to Cattenacio (literally meaning ‘bolting the door’ in Italian), where a sweeper back played either in front of or at the back of a four-man defence. Forwards were tightly marked by four fullbacks and loose balls were picked up and cleared by the sweeper. This tactic literally ruled out defeat, though it was at the cost of attractive and exciting football.

Catennacio went extinct with the coming of ‘total football’ of the Dutch in the 1970s. Propounded by Dutch coach, Rinus Michels and displayed by the genius of Johan Cryuff, total football meant that there were no fixed positions; defenders could turn attackers and attackers could turn defenders. Marking players was therefore almost impossible.

England’s loss to Croatia was in complete contrast to France’s win against Belgium. While the Hugo Lloris-led team’s defensive tactics succeeded, England’s went horribly wrong. After Kieran Trippier had put the ‘Three Lions’ ahead in the fifth minute of the game through a brilliantly taken free-kick, England went on the defensive and tried to hang on to its one goal lead. Very early in the game, England’s midfielders were seen back-pedaling and passing the ball, under pressure, for goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to clear.

Croatia had some seasoned campaigners in their lineup; England lacked experience. The former’s central midfielders, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are said to be the best in the world. Yet, Southgate erred in using a lone central defensive-midfielder in John Henderson, who worked with, and fed, attacking midfielders Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli. Modric and Rakitic therefore took control of the middle third and set up regular attacks for the dangerous Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic.

In the second half, with the England defence under tremendous pressure, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and others were starved of passes. And just when English fans thought that their team might get away with a lone goal win, Perisic scored. In extra time, a fifty million English hearts broke when Mandzukic shot past a diving Pickford to slot home the winner. The statistics tell a story: In 120 minutes of play, England took 10 shots on goal out of which six were off target and four were blocked. On the other hand, Croatia took 22 shots on goal, of which seven were on target.

England had a clear advantage over Croatia in the semifinals. Their set pieces were working well, their attack led by Kane was working like a well-oiled machine and of course, the Croatians, after two exhausting games in the lead up to the semis, were a tired lot. The advantages were however squandered when the Englishmen tried to close down the game in the fifth minute of the match.

I had expected a France-England showdown on Sunday, 15 July in the finals of FIFA World Cup 2018. Former England star Alan Shearer had hoped a month before the World Cup that England progresses beyond the group stage, keeping in mind what had happened in Euro 2016. All credit to Southgate and his boys, therefore, for making it to the penultimate round. Better strategy, and perhaps not underestimating the spirit and the hunger for success of the Croatians, could perhaps have had the Cup and the game ‘coming home for them’ in 2018.

‘England expects’ Southgate to deliver in 2022. But for the moment, let’s see who is brainier: Descamps or Zlatko Dalic.

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, and cricket and football coach, he was for a while the President of Mumbai District Football Association.

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Updated Date: Jul 14, 2018 11:17:43 IST

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