After the first two matches of the group stage, France looked like a serious contender to capture their second World Cup. But with a 0-0 draw against ten-man Ecuador side, some started to question whether France can keep their composure throughout the tournament, or if this team can easily slip up along the way. But not to worry; with France’s “A ½ squad” playing against Ecuador, there were still a few positives that came out of that match. So, can we take away from the France vs. Ecuador match that can be carried into the knockout stage?
1. Defense is solid and deep. : Even though Ecuador had a few quality opportunities during the match, French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris hardly had to break a sweat. The defense has remained solid in the three matches France has played so far. And while the starters in the first group game where impressive, the list is quite deep when it comes to defensive options.
It would be safe to assume that Mamadou Sakha and Raphael Varane will be the starters at central defense for France. But if one of these players have to be replaced for any reason, Eliaquim Mangala and Laurent Koscielny can easily plug in the holes. If France takes a commanding lead in this game, don’t be surprised if one, or both, of the center-backs are replaced, as France might be forced to play an aggressive defensive match against a speedy Nigerian team.
2. Evra/Dubuchy or Digne/Sagna? : If France wants to do an all-out attack, we should see the pairing of Patrice Evra and Mathieu Dubuchy playing wing-back positions. If France is worried about the attack, Lucas Digne and Bacary Sagna are a good defensive left and right back pairing. With Nigeria’s emphasis on speed and attacking, Didier Deschamps could consider using the Digne/Sagna pairing on Monday.
In Ligue 1 and in past French matches, left-backs tend to play more of a wing-back position while the right-backs usually have more of a defensive role. This was the pairing that Raymond Domenech used in the 2010 World Cup when he teamed up Evra and Sagna (though Sagna can transition to an offensive game if needed). There is a possibility that this could happen again, but it seems as if Deschamps is more comfortable with his left and right backs having accompanying roles. Still, having solely and offensive or defensive pairing might reveal how he will approach the match, which could benefit Nigeria.
3. Are Mathieu Valbuena and Olivier Giroud the keys for France? In the Ecuador match, Karim Benzema didn’t have nearly as many chances as he did in the first two games. There are many reasons why this could the case. But one thing that is clearly apparent from the Ecuador match is that Benzema plays better with a speedy team. Mathieu Valbuena provides the lightning speed that helps grease the offensive wheel, and has the ability to quickly move east-to-west as he does north-to-south.
Moussa Sissoko and Antoine Griezmann have the skills to be a part of the offense, easily. But in the Ecuador match, these two lacked quality opportunities. Sissoko plays much better when he is dribbling the ball from the midfield instead of being on the receiving end of the ball in the offensive end. Griezmann also is more comfortable in that position, but coming from the left instead of the right like Sissoko.
In the match against Switzerland, we saw the perfect combination of offensive players for Deschamps’ side. Valbuena brings the speed that is needed to move the play up the field. This is even more apparent when he works with Debuchy on the right side, as these two can bypass distribution to the midfield, which pushes the midfield into the box. Olivier Giroud knows how to be at the right place at the right time, and is the perfect target man for Valbuena, as well as the attacking midfielders. As for Benzema, he has really taken control of the playmaker position which has been the difference-maker for France. While he will not be compared to the France’s last great #10 (and it would be a false comparison because of the role differences between Zinedine Zidane and Benzema), this World Cup could easily redeem Benzema from extremely poor international performances in the past.
4. France has to prepare for the unknown. France will play the early match on Monday. With this being the case, Deschamps has to be tactical with his substitutions during the match. As many of us know, Germany can play a physical knock-down, drag-out game. As for Algeria, the situation is quite interesting. Knowing that a win against Germany would mean a match against their former colonial powers (and the breakaway of Algeria from France was NOT peaceful, for those who do not know the history of the relationship between the two nations), Algeria might bring their “A-game” against the Germans, to possibly pull off the upset. For Deschamps, this could be both good and bad. If Algeria leaves everything out on the field against Germany, they might be quite tired against France. On the flip side, many of the players have Ligue 1 experience, as well as Algerian coach Vahid Halihodzic, who coached Lille, PSG and Rennes.
France will be faced with a number of challenges against Nigeria, but with the many interchanging pieces that the team has, Didier Deschamps will not be afraid to use them.