France 0-1 Spain: both sides use one wide player for ball retention and the other for direct attacks

March 28, 2013

The starting line-ups

Spain recorded a narrow victory, and go one point clear of France at the top of Group I.

Didier Deschamps used Patrice Evra rather than Gael Clichy at left-back, and the late withdrawal of Mamadou Sakho saw Laurent Koscielny start at centre-back. But the key change was higher up – from the side that defeated Georgia 3-1, Olivier Giroud was dropped, with Yohan Cabaye coming into the centre of midfield, turning a 4-4-2 into a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3.

Vicente del Bosque was without left-back Jordi Alba, so Nacho Monreal played instead, while Victor Valdes continued as Iker Casillas is out injured. In midfield, Del Bosque was able to bring back Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso, who both missed the surprise 1-1 draw with Finland. Pedro Rodriguez also returned. Santi Cazorla, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas missed out.

This was a tight match with little to choose between the sides – France had plenty of opportunities.

General pattern

The game quickly settled down into the expected pattern. Spain were using the midfielders and attackers who started the final two games of the 2010 World Cup triumph, so it was more of a familiar XI than the one that started against Finland, and they were in Del Bosque’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation – in the reverse fixture, the absence of many centre-backs meant Sergio Busquets had to play in defence, and Alonso was the sole holder.

As you’d expect, Spain dominated possession and France played more on the counter-attack. The pressing styles were also predictable, as the away side pressed energetically high up the pitch, while France only closed down inside their own half.

Midfield battle

With the France midfield standing off, Busquets dropped into a deep position and enjoyed time on the ball between France’s midfield and Karim Benzema, and played some good forward passes into the midfield zone. The other two Spanish players were watched more keenly – Alonso was pressured by Cabaye, while Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi helped contain Xavi.

Xavi was seemingly not 100% fit, and didn’t have his usual influence – he dropped very deep into midfield to get away from Pogba, or made runs in support of Villa, but didn’t really influence the game in that ‘number ten’ position, and Spain created little from that zone. Pogba, however, should be praised for his good defensive work – his positional discipline was as admirable as his power in the tackle.

Spain dominated possession, and with more creative players they looked more threatening, but they probably tried through-balls and passes over the top of the France defence too quickly.

One wide midfielder comes inside, the other attacks

Although their midfield triangles were formatted differently, in wide zones these sides were a mirror image of each other. On the left, Andres Iniesta always drifts inside to provide an extra midfielder and ensure Spain dominate possession – he does this even more frequently than when fielded wide with Barcelona. Deschamps used Mathieu Valbuena in a similar role – starting on the right, but moving inside and becoming a fourth central midfielder.

But on the opposite side, things were different. Pedro played higher up the pitch and attacked Evra, while Franck Ribery shuttled back to a defensive position (France didn’t make the same mistake of leaving Alvaro Arbeloa free, as they did at the Euros), but also sprinted forward quickly into the space Arbeloa had left. Therefore, the game had a very defined pattern, with lots of similar attacks.

Monreal v Jallet

With Iniesta and Valbuena moving inside, there was ample space for the two full-backs down that side, Monreal and Christoph Jallet, to attack from deep. Sometimes, when passing moves were long and drawn out, they’d find themselves in competition with each other. However, when attacks flowed more quickly, the full-back became attracted to their specific man (Monreal to Valbuena, Jallet to Iniesta) and allowed the other the run of the entire flank.

Therefore, the first two major chances were identical – expect they were at either end. After five minutes, Iniesta got the ball in a pocket of space, Monreal charged forward to create a 2 v 1 situation, got the ball on the overlap, and then pulled it back for Xavi – who blasted over from eight yards.

Then, after 15 minutes, France did the same. It was, inevitably, a more direct attack, but the exact same principle. Valbuena came inside and received possession, Monreal became attracted to him which allowed Jallet to burst forward into attack, and his pull-back found Benzema, who shot over from the edge of the box. It was a more difficult chance, but very similar – which was a result of the clash of systems.

Pedro and Ribery

The other key route to gpal, of course, was through more direct attacks down the opposite flank, with Pedro and Ribery one-against-one with Evra and Arbeloa respectively. And, sure enough, those chances came – and sure enough, it was the ‘narrow’ wide player on the opposite side that created them.

On 31 minutes, Iniesta moved inside into the space between the lines, and lofted a diagonal pass over the defence for Pedro, who made a typical run between Evra and Koscileny. He rounded Hugo Lloris, went to ground, and Spain appealed frantically for a penalty.

Then it was France’s turn to create the same chance. On 39 minutes, Valbuena moved inside to get the ball away from Monreal, looked up and lofted a long ball towards Ribery – who was in behind Arbeloa, and headed the ball past Gerard Pique. This was a clear one-on-one, and Victor Valdes made a good save.

Those two factors – (a) full-backs breaking down one side into space because wide midfielders were drifting in on one side, and (b) wingers attacking more directly on the opposite flank, was basically the entire game, as the highlights demonstrate.

Spain goal

The same pattern continued in the second half – and the first major chance resulted in the game’s only goal. Pedro got the ball on the right, beat two players and thumped a pass out to Monreal – he took the ball past Jallet and returned it to Pedro, who bundled it over the line.

Spain were 1-0 up, and could now dominate possession without needing to penetrate.


Almost immediately after the goal, Del Bosque removed David Villa, who had little impact, and introduced Jesus Navas. This meant Pedro moving into the centre, although it actually changed the game relatively little – Pedro played a role similar to Villa’s, and Navas did something similar to Pedro, stretching the play – although he’s better at receiving the ball into feet and dribbling, so was better for counter-attacking as France pushed forward.

Deschamps’ first change was to introduce Jeremy Menez for Cabaye. Menez went right, with Valbuena moving inside in a 4-2-3-1 shape, the same Plan B that proved effective in the first game between the sides. Menez had one good opportunity to run at Monreal, with Jallet getting forward on the overlap – but he used the ball poorly.

Then Fabregas replaced Pedro in the centre-forward role – he played a little deeper and helped Spain retain the ball. But equally crucial was the red card shown to Pogba for two challenges in the space of 90 seconds – France’s strategy approach wasn’t malicious (this wasn’t Holland in the 2010 World Cup final) but all three French central midfielders were shown a card, because they spent much of the game chasing Spain’s creative midfielders.

This left Deschamps with a problem – Valbuena had to drop back and become the second midfielder alongside Matuidi, but with Fabregas effectively a fifth central midfielder, it was impossible for France to compete in the centre. Therefore, the France coach made an interesting change – he took off Benzema, his only striker, and put on Moussa Sissoko. Now, France played something like 4-2-3-0 – Sissoko and Matuidi scrapping in midfield, with Menez, Ribery and Valbuena further forward.

Taking off a striker at 1-0 down? It would be easy to criticise Deschamps for a lack of ambition, but this actually worked excellently. Suddenly, Sissoko’s mobility helped France compete in the midfield, and he helped create two chances – he outmuscled a couple of opponents to play in Ribery, who shot just wide, and then made the flick-on that resulted in Arbeloa bringing down Menez, and Valbuena putting in a free-kick that required another fine Valdes save. The introduction of Sissoko was the best move either manager made in this game.

Olivier Giroud for Jallet was the final roll of the dice – and, on 92 minutes, maybe Deschamps could have gambled a little earlier – and Spain held on.


Different approaches in and out of possession, but similar shapes and similar chances. That’s what it came down to – which side took their chances. Monreal proved a good replacement for Alba and outperformed Jallet down that flank (although Spain’s possession dominance obviously helped) and he provided two key passes for Xavi and then Pedro, which were probably the best two chances of the game.

“The possession was with the Spanish, no surprise there,” said Deschamps. “But the most annoying thing is that we have had more chances than them. Failing to score was our sin.”

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