Spain 1-1 France: Deschamps’ formation switch results in late France dominance

October 17, 2012

The line-ups after Cazorla replaced Silva because of injury

Spain failed to win for the first time in 25 qualification matches.

Vicente del Bosque continued with Sergio Busquets at the back and Xabi Alonso as the sole holding player. David Silva started on the left, but went off injured after 13 minutes, replaced by Santi Cazorla.

Didier Deschamps started with a single striker, Karim Benzema, flanked by Jeremy Menez and Franck Ribery. Patrice Evra came back in for Gael Clichy, and Maxime Gonalons played as the holding midfielder.

Spain dominated before the break, but France were excellent for the final half hour following a clever change in formation from Deschamps, and the away side created enough goalscoring chances to feel they merited a point.

Spain system

Having played Sergio Busquets together with Xabi Alonso throughout del Bosque’s spell as coach, it was unusual to see Spain with a single holding player here. It was partly an enforced move – without Gerard Pique or Carles Puyol, Busquets was needed at the back, which left Alonso on his own. It was effective when Spain brushed aside Belarus at the weekend, but this was a tougher challenge.

Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta both played deeper than usual for Spain, although it was more similar to their regular roles at Barcelona in a trio. Alonso sat in a deep position but sometimes looked uncomfortable when either Yohan Cabaye or Blaise Matuidi pressed him – usually he can move the ball sideways to Busquets, who takes charge of the situation, but in this match he was forced into a more ambitious forward pass, often to a marked player. He also lacks Busquets’ ability to shield the ball, and although Spain dominated possession heavily in the first half, their ball retention wasn’t at its most convincing.

France approach

France took what can be termed a ’standard’ approach to playing Spain – they sat back in their own third, then tried to break quickly by getting their wingers past the Spanish full-backs and into long balls. Benzema worked the channels nicely, but France simply didn’t get many chances to construct quick attacks – Spain’s pressing was highly effective at forcing them into misplaced passes, with even composed players like Laurent Koscielny and Ribery giving the ball away cheaply.

Without the ball, France kept a high defensive line. Cesc Fabregas played a false nine role rather than the simple centre-forward role he played in the Euro 2012 final, and offered little threat in behind the defence. Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho let him drift away into the midfield zone, happy to keep their position – Gonalons was the man who spent more time tracking him.

Spain down the left

France also remained extremely narrow, showing Spain to the flanks. However, the home side were prepared for this approach, and continually worked the left by keeping two men wider than any France player. Cazorla played wider than Silva and was always available for a switch of play, while Jordi Alba stormed forward on the overlap to create two-versus-one situations.

Sergio Ramos’ opener came following a corner won after pressure on the left, while Koscielny’s penalty concession was shortly after Spain had furthered their numerical superiority on the left, with both wingers and Alba forming a triangle on that side. Of course, France’s approach when facing Spain at the Euros (under Laurent Blanc) was to field two right-backs in tandem – that proved futile as Alba set up the opener that day, but this was a reminder of why Blanc attempted to shut down that side of the pitch.

The second half started in a familiar pattern, although Juanfran replaced Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back because of injury, and the Spanish wingers spent longer on opposite sides.

France change shape

The line-ups after Deschamps replaced Gonalons with Valbuena

Then came the game’s key decision. 12 minutes into the second half, Deschamps decided to take off Gonalons and introduce Mathieu Valbuena to play as a number ten. Matuidi and Cabaye moved a little deeper as a result, but the attacking intent was obvious – a holder off, a playmaker on.

This changed the situation in midfield. Fabregas was now the responsibility of the centre-backs, although his movement caused few problems, as France still had a spare man at the back. Higher up in midfield, France were now able to press Spain more naturally – Valbuena marked Alonso, while the two deeper midfielders got tight to Xavi and Iniesta.

Usually, such an approach is impossible because of Spain’s double pivot – it’s difficult to field two attacking midfielders pressing high up, and this leaves a single holder against various Spain attackers looking to work in the centre of the pitch. In this match, with no advanced playmaker, plus two wide players actually staying near the touchlines, there was no such problem. France won the ball quickly, were brave with their defensive line, and piled on the pressure.

France pressure

Valbuena’s influence was about more than his ability without the ball, of course – his movement made him the perfect player to drift either side of Alonso, who isn’t a natural ball-winner, and the Marseille man prompted some clever attacking combinations down the flanks; a particular favourite was Evra-Ribery-Valbuena on the left. Spain aren’t used to long periods without the ball, and the wide players didn’t do enough to support the full-backs, leaving Juanfran exposed. The home side also looked tired, so their pressing dropped, and France had time to knock passes over the top of the defence.

There were more changes within the same formations. Moussa Sissoko replaced Menez on the right – an odd move, but Menez looked exhausted and Sissoko provided more energy and pushed Alba towards his own goal. Torres came on for Iniesta, supposedly to offer pace in behind the high France defence, but this meant Cazorla dropped into Iniesta’s position, and Fabregas moved right – where he defended little.

In the end, it took an individual mistake from Juanfran in possession for Spain to concede – but France’s goal was always likely to originate from the left. Olivier Giroud, on for Karim Benzema because of injury, headed in expertly.


Spain’s shape didn’t suit them. If del Bosque wants to play 4-3-3 against a good side, it would be better to field Busquets at the base of the triangle – he’s better than Alonso defensively, and although he lacks the Real Madrid man’s passing range, he’s more comfortable when pressured and keeps the passing tempo high. Would it have been better to play Raul Albiol in defence, and Busquets in his favoured midfield role?

Nevertheless, Deschamps deserves great credit for his tactics. France were timid and overawed early on, but they restricted the number of goalscoring chances Spain created in open play. The decision to introduce Valbuena so early was very brave, but it meant France won the ball quickly, had more creative threat, and created more goalscoring opportunities than Spain.

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