Ukraine 2-0 France: France lack creativity with the ball, and lack structure without it

November 18, 2013

The starting line-ups

Ukraine are halfway to the World Cup, after a surprise 2-0 victory over France.

Mykhaylo Fomenko’s XI was fairly typical of his recent line-ups, although Roman Zozulya hasn’t always played upfront, and Edmar was fielded in an advanced role.

Didier Deschamps left out Mathieu Valbuena and played Samir Nasri instead, with Olivier Giroud favoured over Karim Benzema upfront.

This match was played at a high intensity and was dramatic throughout – France dominated possession but lacked organisation.

General approaches

Ukraine pressed France high up the pitch at times, but when the away side worked the ball forward they sat deep in a compact 4-4-1-1 shape without the ball. They attacked primarily through their front four, with sporadic support from Ruslan Rotan.

France dominated possession for long periods. They played a 4-2-1-3 shape with Samir Nasri given huge responsibility to connect midfield and attack, and tried to hit the ball towards the front three quickly.


The player who has received most criticism after France’s defeat is Nasri, which feels a little harsh considering the extremely tough role he was handed for this difficult away trip. Whereas the central player in a 4-2-3-1 generally plays close to the main striker with the wide players dropping back more (Ukraine’s system was a good example), Nasri was more of a third central midfielder than an attacker, and spent much of the time coming extremely deep to collect possession, and hence this was more 4-2-1-3.

This showed that he wasn’t shirking his responsibility, but sometimes he simply positioned himself too deep. He wasn’t uncommon to see him dropping behind Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi to collect possession, and at other times he moved deep to collect five-yard passes from the central midfield duo, as if he didn’t believe they’d be able to play more ambitious passes to him in a dangerous zone. When Nasri moved too deep, France became a broken side: Franck Ribery was often double-marked and struggled to beat his opponents with Patrice Evra remaining cautious until France were 1-0 down, while Loic Remy was rather one-dimensional, always trying to go in behind the Ukraine defence.

Nasri was very involved, and at times he did move higher up to offer Giroud close support. There were also a couple of fine passes – one to Giroud that resulted in a knock-down that Remy couldn’t quite gather properly, and one incisive pass towards Ribery midway through the first half. He missed a fine chance at 1-0, although it must be emphasised that he was given enormous creative responsibility in this game, with relatively little guile from behind him, and two direct wingers out wide.

France play direct

With Nasri the only creative source, France were much better when they played direct football. A long ball towards Giroud in the second minute set the tone for their performance, and the Arsenal striker generally did well by winning aerial balls, and providing knock-downs to the three players behind him. Ukraine were reasonably comfortable when they got men behind the ball, with the midfield protecting the defence nicely, but when the midfield was bypassed quickly – or when the immobile centre-backs were forced to turn and run, they looked vulnerable.

There was a good early long ball to Ribery that caused problems, then Ribery cut inside and hit a nice pass to Remy breaking in behind the defence.

Ukraine press

With a noisy home support behind them, Ukraine started very energetically and repeatedly forced France into errors in possession, often inside their own half. This proved one of Ukraine’s best methods of creating chances.

Both French full-backs were guilty of misplaced passes under pressure, while Roman Zozulya epitomised Ukraine’s good work rate by dropping back to dispossesses Pogba midway through the first half. Yevyen Konoplyanaka also had a decent chance, when Nasri was caught in possession in a very deep position.

France poor defensive shape

The real reason for France’s defeat was their poor defensive shape throughout the game. This started from the front, where a couple of times Nasri joined Giroud in pressing the Ukrainian centre-backs, only for them to play a simple pass towards one of the holding midfielders, who are both much more comfortable on the ball, and used their freedom to hit passes into attack.

But almost every aspect of France’s shape without the ball deserves criticism. Ribery and Remy acted more like wide forwards than wide midfielders at times, and offered no protection when Ukraine transferred the ball quickly into attack. With Nasri also in a relatively advanced position, sometimes France defended with only six players.

The central midfield duo weren’t impressive without the ball, either. Neither Pogba nor Matuidi are naturally holding midfielders and were often bisected easily by one forward pass, as if neither fully understood the positions required to cut off obvious passing angles.

The full-backs, meanwhile, were dragged inside by Ukraine’s two inverted wingers, which sometimes left the centre-backs covering the entire width of the field as the last line of defence. Laurent Koscielny’s tendency to storm into tackles, usually on the Brazilian-born deep-lying forward Edmar, left Eric Abidal exposed, and sadly the Monaco centre-back showed a lack of mobility and pace throughout – and was fortunate not to concede a penalty for clumsily bringing down Zozulya.

Ukraine attacks

Ukraine didn’t demonstrate great guile in possession, but they were particularly good at dragging France out of shape. Konoplyanka would drift inside to move Mathieu Debuchy from his natural position, while Andriy Yarmolenko could do the same with Patrice Evra. The French full-backs were clearly trying to stay tight and prevent them turning, but neither looked comfortable defensively – especially Debuchy, who struggled when Konoplyanka did have opportunities to run.

With Edmar also dragging Koscielny up the pitch, Ukraine were most dangerous when runners exploited the space. A fine example of this came midway through the first half when Evra found himself dragged inside and in a position in front of the centre-backs, which invited Rotan to burst through into the space down that side, teeing up Edmar for a chance. When Ukraine attacked directly, the French backline simply didn’t seem comfortable organising themselves, or reacting to the change in their opponents’ positions.

Scrappy second half

While the first half was played at a high tempo, the second half was much scrappier, and very stop-start with plenty of fouls from both sides. The game got increasingly niggly, which certainly suited the home side, as the less impressive technical outfit.

The opening goal was unspectacular but did demonstrate what Ukraine were doing nicely – breaking into space very quickly with neat combinations, and getting plenty of men into central positions. France’s back four are strung across a wide area, with the midfield barely protecting them.

Pattern becomes more extreme

For the final half hour, the game became an exaggerated version of the first 60 minutes – France dominated possession but couldn’t find a way through (although they did have some decent efforts from the edge of the box) while Ukraine attacked very directly.

With Evra and Debuchy pushing forward more, and the midfield duo taking more positional risks, France’s centre-backs were even more exposed, and performed extremely badly. Abidal could have conceded a penalty, and Koscielny eventually did, for Ukraine’s second goal.

Lack of significant changes

All Deschamps’ changes were straight swaps. Moussa Sissoko replaced his club teammate Remy, which could have prompted a change in shape, but he instead played out on the right – showing one great piece of trickery to launch a quick attack. Valbuena, surprisingly omitted, replaced Nasri in the number ten role, while Benzema came on for Giroud upfront.

It seemed like Deschamps didn’t really have any different ideas – the substitutes played the same roles as the players they’d replaced, but Deschamps hadn’t considered them superior options at the start of the night. Benzema floated around more than Giroud and played a couple of neat combinations to the right, but France didn’t improve and always looked more likely to concede than score.

Ukraine shut down the game nicely, although the match became increasingly scrappy, and both Koscielny and Oleksandr Kucher were dismissed in stoppage time, ruling them out of the second leg.


When a technically inferior side wins, you have to consider whether the favourites flopped, or whether the underdogs were particularly impressive. Inevitably, it’s a little of both, but here it seems fair to concentrate on France’s failings. Deschamps handed too much responsibility to Nasri, in a role he’s not particularly accustomed to, and without the ball France’s defensive shape was dreadful – disjointed pressing, no midfield structure, and three of the back four dragged out of position remarkably easily.

Ukraine were very well organised without the ball, however, and their transitions from defence to attack were impressive, with the two inverted wingers flying forward having defended reliably, protecting their full-backs. The sudden surges from Rotan and left-back Vyacheslav Shevchuk were well-judged and often crucial in providing attacking thrust, with France suffering from poor positional play at the back, combined with a lack of assistance from further forward.

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