The first installation of Tactical BS focuses on the opening match from the European Championships yesterday in Paris: France vs. Romania. More specifically, this column analyzes Didier Deschamps’ choice to begin the tournament with a 4-3-3 formation led by Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud, and Antoine Griezmann.
The Flexibility/Interchangeability of France’s forward line
Deschamps’ starting front three of Payet, Olivier Giroud, and Antoine Griezmann is a fairly unconventional forward line. Giroud is a standard front man who thrives off hold up play, flicks to runners on the wing, and constant service into his feet. Payet and Griezmann however, are not typical wingers. Payet primarily plays centrally behind strikers for his club, West Ham United, and enjoyed by far his best season as a professional acting as the creative force in an entertaining Premier League side. Griezmann similarly enjoyed his best season to date playing as one of two strikers up front in Diego Simeone’s counter-attack heavy Atletico de Madrid squad.
Neither Griezmann nor Payet have the typical winger desire to stay high and wide up the pitch. Payet was a journeyman in the first half, constantly drifting centrally behind Giroud, and even joining the attack on the right on multiple occasions. Griezmann, while not the position-less man that Payet was, often drifted ahead of Giroud when the big center forward dropped deep to join buildup play.
This flexibility provided some benefits to the France attack: the constant flux of the forward line put pressure on the Romanian defense to monitor runs and buildup from different starting locations. On a few occasions, Griezmann’s movement up front would allow Giroud and he to make mirror-image runs across the backline; when a ball was played into the Arsenal forward, he had Griezmann only 5-10 yards away to attempt a through ball into his path on goal. France’s best scoring chances in the first half both came from sequences of Griezmann running on goal from the center of the field. The front three paid clear dividends in the early stages of the second half. France’s opener came from a Giroud bullet header (slightly gifted by Romania’s keeper) off a cross from Dimitri Payet—who of course delivered the assist from the right edge of the 18 yard box.
The starting forward line got France a lead, but the French attack lacked sustained, penetrating possession in their opening formation. Payet and Griezmann’s inward movement led to a packed center of the field and desolate areas out wide. As mentioned, Giroud loves dropping deep to join the midfield, Griezmann drifts ahead of Giroud, and Payet actively searches for the ball wherever it may be. When these tendencies appear on the field simultaneously, the three forwards, along with the advanced midfielders Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, are super crammed in the middle.
This causes the following: 1. No space for any of the listed players to create their normal magic. 2. Romania can easily stay compact and pressure France when they’re on the ball. 3. Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna, but primarily Evra, have to cover extremely large distances to join the attack as wide outlets while also tracking back for their defensive duties.
More on Evra: Outside backs are expected to run a bunch, but asking a 35 year old Evra to cover the length of an entire field for 90 minutes is unfeasible and unsustainable. Evra doesn’t have the legs to handle that workload and it showed. The left side of the field was very rarely used for France’s attack in the first half. Without an outlet to the left for the majority of the first half or an outlet to the right for certain periods, France was easily contained by the Romanians.
Adjustments, Adjustments, Adjustments
Deschamps held off making any substitutions at half time. The big tactical change I noticed for the first 20 minutes of the half was Evra’s starting position higher up the field. He was much more involved as an outlet in wide positions leading to more possession in Romania’s final third. However, Evra tarnished his performance by committing an awful tackle in his own penalty box. The ensuing spot kick tied the game and forced France to claw back for the late victory. Evra has been one of the world’s best fullbacks for years, and is still incredibly productive for a great Juventus side. I have to assume that this mental mistake was brought on by the fatigue of playing left back, left mid, and left wing without much cover throughout the game.
The first two substitutions brought a sense of normalcy to the French squad. Kingsley Coman, a speedy 19 year old winger from Bayern Munich, replaced the less than effective Griezmann, and Anthony Martial, a forward turned winger from Manchester United, replaced a surprisingly quiet Paul Pogba. Martial and Coman moved to the left and right of Giroud respectively. Payet dropped back into his preferred attacking midfield role ahead of Matuidi and N’Golo Kante.
These switches immediately settled the squad. Giroud had wide, pacey players he could link up who actually stayed wide, space was open in the middle of the pitch to allow Payet to work his genius, fullbacks could pick and choose when to join attacks, and Romania became more spread out as France circulated the ball deep in their attacking third from side to side.
In the end the victory was well deserved, and Payet’s man of the match performance was incredible. When he is allowed to dictate from the middle of the pitch and move outwards on occasion, rather than starting on the outside and moving inwards on occasion, he can be a difference maker for any team.
Deschamps has critical decisions to make for the next 2 group stage matches. The beauty of a 24 team tournament means he can experiment with different formations and starters without risking elimination before the knockout stage. This France team is immensely talented and full of big name stars. But it’s important to remember that as the host nation they did not compete in qualifying for this tournament. Before today, France hadn’t played a competitive match in over 2 years. If they can finish atop Group A and find a lineup that fits their stars’ strengths while masking their imperfect and often-injured defense I believe France will make noise deep into this tournament.
But whatever, it’s all BS anyway