France 2-0 Nigeria: France prosper when returning to a one-striker system

July 1, 2014

The starting line-ups

France took a while to show their best football, but dominated the final half hour.

Didier Deschamps’ big decision was whether to start striker Olivier Giroud or left-winger Antoine Griezmann, with Karim Benzema’s position dependent upon that choice. Giroud got the nod.

Stephen Keshi was without Michael Babatunde through injury, and his latest attempt to solve the problem at number ten was playing Victor Moses there, behind Emannuel Emenike.

Nigeria started strongly and dominated the first quarter of the game, but France slowly showed their quality.

Nigeria start strongly

Both managers selected the more adventurous version of their usual system, with more outright attackers than we’re accustomed to, and there was little patience in the midfield play at the start of this contest. Both were keen to get the ball forward to the attackers as quickly as possible, with the midfield battle very scrappy and physical throughout – it felt like a Ligue 1 game.

Nigeria managed to get their attacking players into pockets of space, with France’s wide players giving the full-backs little support. Both Ahmed Musa and Peter Odemwingie had opportunities to run with the ball, while Moses positioned himself either side of Yohan Cabaye to receive good passes, and this was the first time in this tournament where France have obviously missed a natural ball-winner in front of the back four – they conceded too much pressure, and the defence was too exposed.

Breaks

The best chances came on quick breaks, which took two forms. Either the two sides would press the opposition defence, win the ball in an advanced position, and then play quick passing combinations to work a shot.

Alternatively, there were a few counter-attacks from set-pieces – particularly when Nigeria had corners. France are excellent at springing forward from these situations, as they showed in the 5-2 thrashing of Switzerland, and Nigeria simply didn’t have enough numbers in defence to cope.

Valbuena

The real star was Mathieu Valbuena, who typically drifted inside into clever positions between the lines. He was the only player offering outright creativity or intelligent movement, and he often found oceans of space in the ‘number ten’ position because John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi were being drawn up the field into a midfield battle against Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi.

It was actually a shame Valbuena didn’t play more permanently as a number ten, to consistently ask questions of the Nigerian defence, because there was so much space in that zone. He initiated some good passing combinations, particularly one-twos with onrushing midfielders.

France misshapen

The story here, however, was all about France’s shape. Deschamps gambled on the two-striker system, but simply nothing about it worked. Giroud had a poor game, not holding up the ball effectively enough, or making intelligent runs to create space for others. Benzema is less effective from the left, doesn’t offer width, and can’t get into goalscoring positions as frequently. In turn, his narrowness means Valbuena’s role was compromised.

But arguably the most worrying thing was the fact Benzema isn’t very good defensively, as you might expect. Against Switzerland this worked well, because Swiss right-back Stephane Lichtsteiner was constantly caught ahead of the ball when passing moves broke down, and Benzema could counter-attack into space. Here, Efe Ambrose was allowed to move forward with no-one shutting him down, and he combined with Odemwingie to cause problems in the French left-back zone, with Patrice Evra overloaded.

France take control

The game continued in a similar fashion until the hour mark. Then, two crucial things happened.

First, Matuidi made a very poor tackle on Ogneyi Onazi, who was taken off with a suspected broken leg. Matuidi was highly fortunate not to be dismissed, which would have immediately handed the advantage to Nigeria. Instead, Onazi – who had been performing very well – departed, and Reuben Gabriel entered. He failed to have as much influence in the centre of the pitch, and France rallied.

Another crucial factor, though, was France moving to a ‘proper’ 4-3-3, and everything about the side was better. Griezmann replaced Giroud with Benzema going upfront, and the entire side was transformed. Griezmann offered more verticality in possession, combining nicely with both Benzema and Valbuena, and France piled on the pressure in the final 20 minutes, eventually going ahead with a Paul Pogba header from a corner.

An own goal wrapped up the win, with Valbuena’s pass towards Griezmann following a corner doing the damage. It’s tough to imagine Giroud will find his way back into the starting line-up – France had more shots in the final half hour, after the change in system, than in the first hour.

Conclusion

There were various sub-plots here, but the two incidents on the hour mark changed the game. France could have been reduced to ten men, which would have made Nigeria favourites, but then Deschamps’ formation change completely altered the game, and put France on top. It feels like Deschamps got it wrong from the outset, and it was surprising he didn’t fix the problem earlier – he surely won’t mistake the same mistake again.

Nigeria had a decent enough tournament, with the wide players performing well – but, as ever, there’s still a question about the structure of the midfield, particularly at the top of the triangle.

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ZM Elsewhere:

USA and ’still nil-nil!’

There *are* no easy games at this level

Argentina v Switzerland questions

USA midfield performances


France 2-0 Nigeria: France prosper when returning to a one-striker system

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