France 0-1 Belarus: A compact Belarus side with a classic smash and grab
A disastrous start for Laurent Blanc, in his first competitive game as France manager.
Blanc had severe selection problems before the match. He was without Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra, Jeremy Toulalan, Franck Ribery, Yoann Gourcuff, Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa, Karim Benzema and Lassana Diarra due to injury or suspension. His starting line-up was a system that was broadly 4-4-2, with Yann M’Vila very deep ahead of the back four, and Loic Reomy dropping off Guillaume Hoarau upfront.
Bernd Stange chose a 4-2-3-1 for his Belarus side, that was rigid defensively and fluid further forward. An average position diagram would probably end up looking more like 4-2-4, because the front four players were allowed to switch around and interchange as moves progressed, with the players returning to defend the nearest zone when moves broke down, rather than the position they started from. So the Hleb brothers would often switch, or Vitali Rodionov would often end up on the flank.
As you might expect, the home side were dominant during the opening period of the game, keeping possession well despite (in theory) their numerical disadvantage in the centre of midfield. The two France (and Arsenal) full-backs got into advanced positions, allowing France’s wide players to move inside into the centre of the pitch, although they also dropped deep to come and get the ball, the further into the match France were at 0-0. Remy dropped to the right sometimes when defending, and he and Menez seemed to have the freedom to change positions in the opening period.
Little creativity from France
France played well up until about 25 yards from goal, when the attacks broke down because of a lack of creativity, and a lack of understanding between players not remotely used to playing with each other. Hoarau was given a bit of a battering in L’Equipe with a 3/10 rating, but he won a decent amount of balls in the air – the problem was surely that he wasn’t receiving enough support from onrushing midfielders.
The ’story’ is that France were awful, unable to beat a side that has never qualified for a major international tournament. But the truth is that Belarus were more ‘good’ than France were ‘bad’. They were organised, compact, disciplined and patient in their build-up play.
What was most notable about the away side’s defensive shape (in addition to the front four taking it in turns to drop in as the wide players when defending) was how deep the striker, and the link player (between the midfield four and the striker) dropped when Belarus didn’t have the ball. There was little attempt at closing down the France centre-backs when they had the ball, and sometimes, when M’Vila got the ball, he found ten Belarus outfield players between him and goal.
In addition, however, they didn’t play a particularly deep defensive line, which helped them keep it tight between the lines. And when they won the ball, the fact the forward four were so close together meant that could combine and build up play gradually, gently easing their whole side up the pitch. Compact sides were generally successful at the World Cup, according to FIFA’s Technical Report.
Their counter-attacks were direct when France were out of position at the back, but more often they focussed on keeping the ball and seeing what unfolded, rather than haring towards goal and losing possession straight away.
Injury problems for Blanc
In fairness to Blanc, his plans were completely undermined by an injury to Remy after half an hour. Remy was replaced with Mathieu Valbuena, who played on the right-hand side, meaning Jeremy Menez went into the centre, creating something more like a 4-2-3-1.
Menez, however, had a very poor game and is not suited to a central role in a 4-2-3-1 – not merely because of his playing style, but because he is extremely frustrating and incredibly inconsistent – putting him in the centre of the pitch and relying on him for creativity is unlikely to yield results.
Many of France’s better chances in the game came from Clichy and Sagna long throws towards Hoarau in the penalty area, and from open play Valbuena had a good impact on the right, combining energetic running with a directness that was lacking from the rest of the side. The best moments came from him – notably two dipping shots from the right-hand side, and a very good cross that Malouda was about to convert, but for the intervention of Igor Shitov.
France introduced a second striker, Louis Saha, for Jeremy Menez in order to provide more of a goal threat, but he only lasted ten minutes before becoming injured, so Blanc had to turn to Kévin Gameiro. By this stage France’s attacks were looking increasingly desperate and less likely to work.
Belarus’ winner came very late – Vyacheslav Hleb pulled the ball back for substitute Sergey Kislyak to sidefoot into the top corner. It was far from a beautiful goal – Clichy was caught in possession and then couldn’t get a tackle in on Hleb – but credit must go to Belarus for getting five players into the box in the final five minutes of a game they would have been delighted to take a draw from.
An underwhelming performance from France – robbed of their most talented attackers, they lacked any kind of cutting edge, and the fact that the starting line-up only boasted four total career international goals (all from Malouda) was all too evident.
Belarus’ side was extremely compact, with the front four interchanging, and the two furthest forward players always coming short and making themselves available for short passes into feet. They built up play well, defended excellently, and whilst they were slightly flattered by the victory, they gave themselves every chance by working as a unit.France 0-1 Belarus: A compact Belarus side with a classic smash and grab