France unpredictable with new formation

June 7, 2010

France's line-up for all three of their pre-World Cup friendlies

As you might recall, France qualified for this tournament in rather controversial circumstances, squeezing past Ireland in the playoff after finishing behind Serbia in the group phase.

The Thierry Henry handball may have slightly taken away from the wider issue at hand – the fact that France were very poor throughout qualification. Coming second in the group was not a disgrace – they only lost once, they were seven points clear of third-placed Austria, and they were up against a Serbia side that was far better than expected. But even when France won, they failed to convince. Two 1-0 wins against Lithuania and another against the Faroe Islands tells the story of the campaign.

Throughout qualification they generally stuck to a 4-2-3-1 system that was possible because in Jeremy Toulalan and Lassana Diarra they had two solid holding midfield players who formed a good partnership. But Diarra has been ruled out of the World Cup because of a stomach problem – having started 10 of the 12 qualification games, he was crucial to France’s system, and Raymond Domenech has sought to compensate for his absence by changing France’s entire system. He has decided to play Florent Malouda and Yoann Gourcuff in the centre of midfield alongside Toulalan, with two wingers and a lone striker, in a shape that has been termed 4-3-3, as outlined in an excellent article by French football expert and tactical obsessive Tom Williams:

“Playing alongside Toulalan allows Gourcuff more time on the ball to pick a pass and gives him a much better view of what’s happening ahead of him. The 4-3-3 means that he has three other notionally attacking midfielders – Malouda, (Frank) Ribéry and (Sidney) Govou – to shoulder part of the creative burden, whereas against Ireland he had been the sole offensive midfielder in the (4-2-3-1) XI. With three central midfielders France are able to recycle the ball much more effectively, enabling them to maintain an attacking presence closer to the edge of the opposition penalty area.”

Frankly, it is difficult to expand on the content of that excellent article, which sums up the problems Domenech faces very well, so instead we’ll analyse some screenshots from their pre-World Cup friendlies, and have a look at how their system operates.

Before that, it must be said that it is difficult to judge how well the shape works, because of the fact that France have elected to play pre-tournament friendlies against relatively weak sides that haven’t qualified for the World Cup. That is not to say that the performances are in some way invalid, but a recognition that in games where France dominate possession (61%, 71%, 69%) playing Malouda and Gourcuff in central midfield roles is unlikely to be much of a problem.

The difficulty may come when France are faced with a Mexico side that get plenty of men forward and retain possession excellently, or a Uruguay side that string five across the middle and also have a forward dropping deep, which might force Malouda and Gourcuff into primarily defensive roles.

One final point before the images – Domenech has played the same system and the same starting XI in all three of his pre-World Cup friendlies, suggesting that the team is nailed-on to start the first game against Uruguay – although the results of the friendlies have been disappointing – a narrow 2-1 win over Costa Rica, a 1-1 draw with Tunisia, and a 1-0 defeat to China.

The basic shape

France’s new system has been widely described as a 4-3-3, but could equally be termed as a 4-1-4-1. The above shot shows France not in possession; Frank Ribery and Sidney Govou drop level with Florent Malouda and Yoann Gourcuff (blue). Nicolas Anelka is the lone striker (pink) and Jeremy Toulalan takes up a deep position behind the four midfielders.

The same situation can be observed above. There is nothing unusual about the wingers in a 4-3-3 having to drop into a defensive role when not in possession, nor about one man in the three-man midfield playing deeper than the other two. However, the wingers do have a much deeper starting position than you would expect to find in a 4-3-3, whilst Toulalan clearly plays much more withdrawn role to his two midfield colleagues, and gets forward less.

The lone striker

As he does when playing upfront alone for Chelsea, Nicolas Anelka looks to drop deep in something approaching a false nine role. Above, marked in pink, he drags one centre-back out of position as he comes towards the ball, but no France player naturally exploits the space – Govou sticks to the wide-right position, whilst Ribery rarely makes off-the-ball runs towards the centre.


Florent Malouda has admitted that a place in a central midfield three does not suit him, and he tends to drift towards his preferred left-sided position anyway. This can cause a bit of congestion on the left flank for France – with Patrice Evra (green), Malouda (blue) and Ribery (yellow) all looking to work in a similar position when France counter.

This shows why Malouda (in blue) dislikes his position – he is often forced to pick the ball up in the middle of his own half, a long way away from being able to influence the game in the final third.

Toulalan as a centre-half?

Finally, Toulalan (in red) occasionally looks to become a centre-half and drop between the central defenders (in purple), allowing the full-backs (in green) to push on. This seemed to happen less frequently in France’s recent friendly defeat to China; although in theory the situation works well in defence – with two attacking full-backs and two centre-backs comfortable on the ball and not alien to playing at full-back – the next ball becomes difficult, as neither Gourcuff nor Malouda naturally come deep to receive a pass from Toulalan, as shown by the fact neither are within 25 yards of him in this shot.

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