France 1-1 England: France dominate possession but creativity stifled by England sitting deep
A match with little invention, played at a very slow pace.
Laurent Blanc chose his expected side in a 4-3-3, with Florent Malouda shuttling forward from the midfield.
Roy Hodgson’s side contained one surprise name – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who started on the left. James Milner started on the other flank, and Danny Welbeck got the nod over Andy Carroll upfront.
As expected, France dominated possession (65%) and had 21 shots compared to England’s 5, but many were from long-range, as Blanc’s side struggled to create clear-cut chances.
This was a fairly simple battle. England had two banks of four, with Ashley Young and Welbeck paired upfront – a mobile, energetic duo that looked to work the channels with support from the two wide players. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker sat much deeper.
Blanc asked Alou Diarra to stick tightly to Ashley Young when Young came deep, and play deep in front of Young when he moved forward to partner Welbeck. Yohan Cabaye was higher up near Gerrard, and Malouda tried to drift past Parker into space. But there was little space for France, as England packed their own half with eight very narrow players. The space was generally in the wide zones, and although Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra got forward well, they rarely caused significant danger. Playing the ball out wide tended to result in lots of corners, which England sometimes defended nervously.
France’s front four (ie including Malouda) were very fluid. While Ribery generally stayed on the left, Samir Nasri had license to wander infield and play where he wanted (which opened up space for Debuchy). It was Nasri who was the game’s key player – he played more passes than anyone else, also played the most in the final third, and created eight chances – the second-most in the tournament so far, after Wesley Sneijder.
Nasri was the only man using space intelligently, moving into a zone between the lines where England didn’t know how to deal with him: whether to bring a defender out from the back, drop the midfield deeper, or ask Ashley Cole to track him inside. That confusion resulted in his large influence on the game in general, while his goal came when England’s two central midfielders both moved too deep – Nasri got space on the edge of the box and fired in, equalising Joleon Lescott’s earlier header.
Aside from Nasri’s movement, England coped well with France’s attacks. Blanc’s side were patient on the ball and didn’t over-commit players into the final third. Cabaye, for example, only seemed to become an attacking force in the final quarter of the game, and the full-backs tried to make sudden powerful runs rather than permanently placing themselves high up, which would risk counter-attacks at transitions.
England’s game was about soaking up pressure, then breaking quickly – they’d done this well in the two pre-tournament friendlies, but today they were much less fluent in their attacking play. The main reason was Young’s lack of influence upon the game – he completed only twelve passes, the fewest of the 20 outfield players that started the match.
A lot of credit should go to Diarra, who was extremely clever with his positioning and simply prevented Young from being an option when England got the ball. Statistically, Diarra was immense – 100% pass completion rate, and all five of his tackles were successful.
The only clear-cut chance England created in open play (when James Milner missed after rounding Hugo Lloris) came from a rare occasion when England overloaded Diarra. Oxlade-Chamberlain had moved into a central position, Diarra got drawn to him, which then left Young free for the first time – he slipped the ball through the defence for Milner coming off the other flank. England probably didn’t do this often enough – although, of course, they had to get the ball first. Welbeck ran the channels well, and would have been a greater goal threat if Young had seen more of the ball.
Young and Welbeck played very intelligently without the ball. They didn’t chase and press the French centre-backs – instead, they stood off and prevented passes being played forward into the midfield. Philippe Mexes and, in particular, Adil Rami’s passes were extremely horizontal, and France found it difficult to get the ball forward. As a result, the game was played at a very slow pace – which probably suited England.
There was absolutely no progression in this game. England continued to sit very deep, while France didn’t significantly increase the number of players they attacked with. The tempo of the passing was still slow, and both sides seemed to tire quickly and recognise that a draw was a decent result.
Perhaps the only significant development was Karim Benzema’s movement, as he became frustrated with the lack of service – he only received the ball in the penalty area once . Instead, he dropped into deeper zones, the type of positions Nasri was playing in, and had a couple of long-range attempts saved by Joe Hart.
It was highly surprisingly, especially considering the heat, that neither coach made a substitution until the 77th minute. England brought on Jermain Defoe for Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Young going left, while Jordan Henderson replaced the exhausted Parker. This was broadly attack-minded, but really just about fresh legs.
Blanc brought on Hatem Ben Arfa and Marvin Martin for Cabaye and Malouda, but on 85 minutes it was too late to have a significant impact on the game.
On the whole, the first round of Euro 2012 matches have been relatively open and entertaining, but this was a slow game. The two sides wanted to ‘not lose’ more than they wanted to win, so a draw seemed likely from early in the second half, with only France’s long-range shots threatening.
England’s shape was good, but their transitions were disappointing because of Young’s anonymity. He’s a key player for this system, and France did well to nullify his influence. Hodgson will also be concerned about the space between the lines, and the Parker-Gerrard combination needs to be a little more disciplined, and make sure one of them is occupying that zone, rather than chasing the ball or being drawn to opponents.
France were certainly the more positive side, but moved the ball too slowly to draw England’s players out of shape, and maybe needed more variety and movement from their midfield triangle. They put England’s defensive unit under persistent but never particularly strong pressure, and seemed to be waiting for the other two group matches.