Tactics: France re-shaped, but rough edges remain

A matter of weeks before the start of the 2010 World Cup, Raymond Domenech made perhaps the most radical move of his four-year tenure as France coach by completely altering the team’s shape. When first-choice defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra was forced out of the squad by a stomach complaint linked to a genetic blood condition, Domenech scrapped the 4-2-3-1 that has been France’s default tactical system since the beginning of the last World Cup and began to experiment with a 4-3-3.

The new formation features Lyon’s Jérémy Toulalan as the sole holding midfielder, with Florent Malouda and Yoann Gourcuff on either side  of him, Franck Ribéry and Sidney Govou on the flanks and either Thierry Henry or Nicolas Anelka as a lone centre forward.

France premiered the new system in their first World Cup warm-up game against Costa Rica in Lens last week and produced their most coherent attacking performance in a long time. A late strike from debutant Mathieu Valbuena, the Marseille wildcard, secured a 2-1 victory that procured a timely surge in optimism for a side that laboured through qualifying and needed one of the most controversial goals in football history to see off a resolute Republic of Ireland in the European zone qualifying play-offs.

Against Costa Rica, France circulated the ball better than they had throughout the entire qualifying campaign, with Ribéry a persistent threat in his preferred left-wing role, Malouda and Gourcuff regular contributors in attack and substitutes Valbuena and Abou Diaby making decisive contributions when they came on in the second period.

“In our play, it was much better,” said Gourcuff. “There was much more movement around the ball carrier, which hasn’t been the case in recent France matches. Now, whoever had the ball had two or three options.”

It may have only been a friendly game against a side that hasn’t qualified for the World Cup, but it demonstrated that France were capable of playing insistent and expansive attacking football. It was also a far cry from their wretched performance in the home leg of the play-off against Ireland (see right), when Gourcuff was left marooned in a central playmaking role by Ireland’s superb shackling of Diarra and the unwillingness, or inability, of Henry, Anelka and André-Pierre Gignac to play a role in the creative process.

Playing alongside Toulalan allows Gourcuff more time on the ball to pick a pass and gives him a much better view of what’s happening ahead of him. The 4-3-3 means that he has three other notionally attacking midfielders – Malouda, Ribéry and Govou – to shoulder part of the creative burden, whereas against Ireland he had been the sole offensive midfielder in the XI. With three central midfielders France are able to recycle the ball much more effectively, enabling them to maintain an attacking presence closer to the edge of the opposition penalty area.

The new shape also solves the problem of how to accommodate Ribéry and Malouda in the same team. Both players are at their best on the left flank, but the Bayern Munich man has been more insistent about his desire to play there and Malouda demonstrated in the latter stages of Chelsea’s season that he was fully capable of playing in a deeper, more central position.

So far, so good. But then came the uninspiring 1-1 draw in Tunisia on Sunday (see below) and suddenly the team was beset by doubts. Centre-backs William Gallas and Eric Abidal put in a wobbly performance that suggests the Barcelona left-back is not fully at home in the middle, while Anelka resolutely refused to occupy the role of a centre forward by dropping deeper and deeper in search of the ball and robbing the players behind him of the central attacking reference point that is essential for the system to work.

Tunisia took an early lead when Gallas allowed Fahid Ben Khalfallah to step past him and centre for the unmarked Issam Jemâa to tap home and it could have been 2-0 shortly afterwards, had Ben Khalfallah not overcooked his pass to Jemâa when clean through after the France defence had been caught out high up the pitch.

Ribéry ceded his place to Henry after a lively first-half showing but France’s record goalscorer turned in a largely ineffective performance, illuminated nonetheless by some deft touches, while Govou was anonymous as an attacking presence on the right. France dominated possession and crafted numerous chances, but there was no hiding the problems in both defence and attack.

Domenech had foreseen as much after the Costa Rica game. “We played an encouraging match in terms of our offensive configuration but I’d like us to be tighter defensively,” he said. “This system creates situations where we can be put under pressure more quickly than with three defensive midfielders.”

The performance against Costa Rica raised hopes that were quickly tempered by the draw against Tunisia. Ahead of the final World Cup warm-up against China on Friday, there are some important questions to be answered. Can Abidal be relied upon at centre-back? Do Malouda and Gourcuff possess the defensive qualities to adequately support Toulalan when France lose the ball? Is Govou really the best option on the right? And, perhaps most pressingly, can Anelka be made to play as an orthodox centre forward, or would Domenech be better off drafting Gignac or Djibril Cissé into the side?

The problem with Anelka is that he is unable to rein in his natural inclination to drop deep in search of the ball. He played up front on his own with great success for Chelsea last season, but at the tip of a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree with Malouda and Joe Cole playing in narrow roles behind him. For France, the two players nearest to him are on the flanks. With Chelsea he could drop deep because both Cole and Malouda were able to break beyond him to attack the penalty area. In France’s new system he plays well in advance of the central midfield three and when he goes looking for the ball, all he does is get in their way.

The thought persists that France would be much more effective with a genuine penalty box predator such as Cissé, or perhaps Gignac, in the central striking role. Gignac took up much more orthodox positions when he came on for Anelka and also exchanged positions intelligently with Henry. Regarding the flanks, moving Ribéry to the right and restoring Malouda to the left would give France better balance, while also creating room for the impressive Diaby to occupy a starting role alongside Toulalan, but Govou brings valued defensive discipline to the midfield and Ribéry is a markedly more dangerous player on the left.

It is also worth remembering that, in the run-up to the last World Cup, Domenech tested a 4-3-1-2 formation in the pre-tournament friendly matches before jettisoning it in favour of the 4-2-3-1 that took Les Bleus to the final. Should the 4-3-3 falter against China, the 4-2-3-1 may return, but with Toulalan and Alou Diarra as the only true defensive midfielders in the squad after Domenech decided not to summon a direct replacement for Lassana Diarra, it would leave France with scant cover in a key position.

For all these seemingly unsolved conundrums, France will arrive in South Africa in good heart. Domenech was pilloried for overlooking Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, but both players were accused of sowing disharmony in the squad at Euro 2008 and in their absence France enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive training camp in Tignes that appears to have created a genuine sense of shared purpose. The players say they are happy with the new system and Domenech has diplomatically addressed the decline of Henry by quietly relegating him to the bench and handing the captain’s armband to the popular Patrice Evra.

To achieve success at a World Cup, a team needs good players, a clearly defined tactical system, alternatives on the bench and a bit of luck. In the latter stages of the competition, matches are decided by details. France have the quality to reach the semi-finals at least. Domenech’s handling of the Anelka problem might ultimately dictate how far they go.

25 Responses to “Tactics: France re-shaped, but rough edges remain”

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  • A good read, I think lots of people are hoping/expecting France to falter at the group stage or not long afterward. It will certainly be interesting to see how Mexico and Uruguay react to the 3-pronged attack.

    Personally I don’t think the Malouda-Gourcouff partnership can work in the middle against the best teams. They leave too much space behind them in which balls can be played.

    The Anelka problem will be an interesting one, Henry is clearly aging and out of favour. Gignac as I understand it tends to play FROM the wing rather than as a centre forward, but I haven’t seen him play myself. Cisse seems to be the only player Domenech might bring on to lead the line.

  • Although Ribery seems to be “markedly more dangerous” on the left than the right, I don’t see Govou offering much going forward. And while Malouda did flourish in a slightly more central role at Chelsea than in the past, I still feel he’s at his best in a wider or more advanced role.

    I’d drop Govou, move Ribery to the right, slide Malouda forward and bring on Diaby. He adds a little more running and tackling than Malouda would offer and some extra versatility for game changing subs.

    • Tom:

      I’d quite like to see France line up like that, but I can’t see it happening. As defensiveminded points out below, Govou always puts in a defensive shift and putting Ribery on the right and moving Malouda forward would expose the full-backs on both sides. I can see Govou regularly being replaced by Valbuena anyway, particularly if France are in urgent need of a goal.

  • Govou is preferred because he tracks back and protects Sagna. Ribery on the left will cut in and create space for Evra to overlap. The wingers chosen work best with the fullbacks chosen, an important element of the 433. Its not about who the best player is.

    Malouda has played as a fullback so when Evra is out of position Malouda will cover for him. I think this is the thinking behind his move to central midfield. Keep in mind that Domenech is a safety first kind of guy (tactically anyway) so look at these changes from the defensive point of view.

    Abidal and Gallas will be targeted through aerial balls so I see a problem there

    • I can see that Ribery cutting in should provide space for Evra to push forward. But what I saw against Tunisia was that whenever the space was there Malouda was pushing across to fill it. If I’m not mistaken Evra can’t have come forward on more than a couple of occasions.

      • You are right but I put this down to players not being used to their roles. I would have to watch more games to be sure. I can’t believe that Evra will not be allowed to overlap since he does it better than anybody.

  • […] Tactics: France re-shaped, but rough edges remain Cavalry Battle in front of a Burning Mill, Philips Wouwerman “A matter of weeks before the start of the 2010 World Cup, Raymond Domenech made perhaps the most radical move of his four-year tenure as France coach by completely altering the team’s shape. When first-choice defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra was forced out of the squad by a stomach complaint linked to a genetic blood condition, Domenech scrapped the 4-2-3-1 that has been France’s default tactical system since the beginning of the last World Cup and began to experiment with a 4-3-3.” (Football Further) […]

  • Great article here is some food for thought:

    How do you guys think one of this option would work up front?

    Ribery Cisse Anelka (this one will allow Anelka to drop back and switch with Gourcuff at times, and Cisse is a very good target man. Domenech can switch Cisse with Gignac and Anelka with Govou/Valbuena)

    • Personally I really like the sound of that front line, Anelka has played out on the right this season at Chelsea with Drogba and Kalou. I really think it’s important for the centre forward to push forward and make the pitch as long as possible if there aren’t players going past him.

      • I think Domenech is preparing this 4-3-3 for Uruguay and Mexico(who both seem to use 3 man defences) so having two genuine wingers who can cross the ball, drop into midfield when needed,hug the touchline and run at the fullback is important. Anelka would not work in this role. At Chelsea he plays as a striker who starts his runs from the right. South Africa also played with a 3 man defence in the confed cup and their defenders are very good in the air but struggle against movement so Anelka could do very well against them as a centre forward.

        Of course I have only seen this formation once so its difficult to draw any conclusions.

  • GFC:

    Great overview of the struggles of Les Bleus and the opportunity of going with the 4-3-3. Govou really concerns me on the right. I realize he brings some defensive discipline but he is lacking when it comes to offensive punch and therefore forces the French to lean too much to the left. I think that Valbuena would bring some added color and vitality to the right, while he might not back track as much as Govou the threat from that side would force defenses to be more balanced. It would make Gourcuff play deeper but I think that would be good for his offense as well.

    I also agree on Anelka, I think Gignac would be a good option since he fits the mold as a true center forward – sitting on the last defender and driving depth to the offense.

    I fear that Domenech has missed his opportunities to leverage the Tunisia and now apparently the China match to try some solutions – http://bit.ly/cYyWT6

    • Tom:

      I’d be wary about throwing Valbuena in from the start, because he’s such a great option as an impact substitute. Much better, in my eyes, to have him on the bench, ready to come on and change the game, than to start him and run the risk of him playing poorly, leaving you with no creative wide players in the dugout.

  • Lion:

    I just discovered this website and I’m impressed by quality of the in-depth analysis. I am gonna give you my insights from a french point of view.
    The main concern for me is the defense. Abidal is a left-back who hasn’t played in club at the center of the defense since he left Lille in 2004 (and even there that was just as a back-up). Domenech seems to think that his impressive physical abilities might balance his lack of knowledge of the tactical requirements necessary to play in such a position. I fully disagree with him. And unfortunately Abidal has proved me right in numerous occasions. With Abidal playing there, this team has no chance to go far in the tournament.
    The best solution would be Squillacci who has proved to be a reliable defensive player. But that would mean putting Gallas on the left of the central defense, and he doesn’t want it…
    As for the offensive animation, you all criticized Govou, and he has been heavily criticized lately in France as well. But I feel like we didn’t watch the same two warm-up games. He just never received the ball!! Gourcuff likes to goes to the center of the pietch, Sagna doesn’t offer many combinaisons with him offensively, so I don’t really see what Govou could have done better.
    All our offensive actions have been stereotypes and very easy to defend against: Left side, Malouda, Evra and Ribery. With RIbery always trying to do everything by himself, Robben kind of style- except that Robben he’s a clutch player who makes the decision…
    I am not sure where I stand concerning Anelka. Yes Anelka is not a real 9 and likes to come for the ball deeper. But no players allowed him to receive the ball close enough to the goal so he had to go back ask for it. We don’t have that many solutions: Henry shouldn’t even be in that team, he has level of a New-York MLS player and nothing more; Gignac has scored 4 goals this season; Cissé is stupid, has not technical skills whatsoever, knows only to run and kick the ball, and he’s offside 2 times out of 3.
    I guess I would go with Gignac anyway, he has a lot of strength, he’s a real 9 and a nothing to envy to Cissé’s powerful kicks.

    I was really impressed by Diaby’s performances. You probably know him better than I do, so I’m asking you guys: do you think he could play 90 minutes at this level? I saw him playing both very good and very average games in Champions League.
    If he can, my perfect line-up with the 23 Domenech picked would be this one:





    And btw Ribery can defend, he did it well in 2006. He’s more reluctant now as he thinks he’s one of the best player of the world.

    To conclude, I’m not even sure we’ll go past the first round. This team is unpredictable. But even if all the stars align perfectly we won’t do better than quarter-finals with our defense…

    Froggily yours, …

    PS: I wish you english good luck. I really hope your team will sth good for once. Anything else would be a shame with the great players you have..

    • Tom:

      Thanks for the comment Lion. Always good to get some genuine French feedback on Les Bleus (although I should point out that, as a Welshman, I have about as much emotional investment in England’s fortunes as I have in North Korea’s).

      You make some very valid points about Abidal and it would be interesting to see how Squillaci (or even Toulalan) fared alongside Gallas, who, it should be remembered, played as the left-sided centre-back at the last World Cup, even though he didn’t want to.

      I agree that France would be much more dangerous going forward with Malouda and Ribery on the flanks. Gignac probably ticks more boxes than all the other strikers regarding the attributes you need to play as a lone forward in a 4-3-3 as well.

      Regarding Diaby, I think there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be given a first-team role. The 4-3-3 would suit him because it would allow him to get forward, but I’d be worried if he was asked to play purely as a holding midfielder. For Arsenal he often plays in front of both Alexandre Song and Denilson, which allows him to attack without worrying about what’s going on behind him, but if he was playing as a defensive midfielder alongside Toulalan I don’t think you’d see the best of him.

      On Govou, I think one of the reasons he doesn’t see the ball that much is because his team-mates perhaps don’t believe he can make things happen on his own like Ribery, Gourcuff and Malouda can. It’s true that the team is weighted heavily towards the left, and that Sagna doesn’t offer anywhere near as much offensive support as Evra, but I don’t see anything in Govou’s play or general demeanour to suggest he’s going to suddenly spring to life in South Africa.

  • I have seen France play a bit more and it looks like it will be Malouda who will move into the space vacated by Ribery. Against China, Malouda played like a winger and it was more 442 than 433, with Ribery having more of a free role.
    The players are not linking up very well and I don’t see the value of Govou against weaker teams like China. He doesn’t hug the touchline so he doesn’t stretch defenses, he is not involved in the build up play and his defensive qualities are not needed.

  • […] with two wingers and a lone striker, in a shape that has been termed 4-3-3, as outlined in an excellent article by French football expert and tactical obsessive Tom Williams: “Playing alongside Toulalan allows Gourcuff more time on the ball to pick a pass and gives […]

  • Sanjay:

    defensiveminded you are absolutely right, Govou should be played against stronger, more offensive teams. Against teams like China, and then South Africa in the Group match, there should be a more offensive option on the right. This can either be Anelka with Gignac upfront, or even Cisse. I would prefer if Valbuena bring his brand of creativity off the bench.
    There are very few positives to take into the World Cup as a fan of Les Bleus, one thing is that there are absolutely no expectations. Everybody in France is already looking forward to the Blanc era, this worldcup has become something of an afterthought. In fact, I think most people don’t even expect France to get out of the 1st round. If France can start well, which they normally dont, then a quarter final with England beckons and let’s be honest, if there was any of the so-called contenders we could choose to play, its probably England. All said and done, I think we will be dumped out in the round of 16, which unfortunately is an honest reflection of where this France team lie in the world of football – a top 15 team, not an elite powerhouse which is where they should belong when you consider the level of talent.

  • […] Will France’s 4-3-3 work? As discussed in detail last week, France are expected to deploy a 4-3-3 formation that they’ve worked on for only a matter of […]

  • colin:

    It seems fairly obvious to me that the best formation for France would be a 4-2-2-2 with Toulalan and Diaby holding behind Ribery (or Malouda) and Gourcuff with Anelka paired with Henry, Gignac, or Cisse upfront. This would most suit France’s strengths by allowing space for the fullbacks (Evra and Sagna) to get forward and overlap and also, with two holding midfielders, Ribery and Gourcuff would have the cover to focus on attacking and creating. Unfortunately Malouda would be the odd man out in this scenario. But trying to squeeze everyone in to an unbalanced lineup is counter productive.

  • […] Breakdown: Here’s a fantastic insight into France’s reshaped formation and how Malouda and Anelka have been put […]

  • dj:

    Following the match on Friday, I would probably point out that the talk of shifts in system (the French lineup on Friday could be seen as either 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, and seemed to vary between the two, which is very normal) are far less pertinent than what is essential for the French to progress: a shift in tactics. The French seemed mostly unable to inject any pace into a movement, so whilst they kept the ball reasonably well, they were comfortably contained. When they did switch the ball quickly to find Ribery one on one, his cross should have led to a goal. The French will need to find a way to change the pace of their attacks in order to get through defences; they seemed unable to do this aside from one or two occasions.

  • […] much of the talk surrounding France in the run up to the World Cup focusing on a switch to a new 4-3-3 shape, the immediate restoration of the 4-2-3-1 shows how Domenech’s failings in his man-management […]

  • […] much of the talk surrounding France in the run up to the World Cup focusing on a switch to a new 4-3-3 shape, the immediate restoration of the 4-2-3-1 shows how Domenech’s failings in his man-management […]

  • […] than one would normally expect from the advanced midfielder in a 4-3-3, but this is closer to his preferred position. Delgado (left) and Bastos (right) played as inverted wingers, with Gomis filling in for Lisandro […]

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