How Paul Pogba has been unlocked and why Belgium's tactics against Brazil can't bring down France

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No disrespect to the other semi-finals clash but if it’s a generous sprinkling of stardust you’re after, then this is the encounter you’re waiting for.

The world-class players from both Belgium and France will do battle on Tuesday for a place in the World Cup final.

But what good are top quality players if they aren’t deployed in the right way?

Here’s the tactical breakdown.

FORMATION SWITCH A NO-GO

Roberto Martinez will dine out on his systematic dismantling of Brazil in the semi-finals for some time to come. It was a tactical masterclass from the Catalan which left pundits trying to decipher the formation he used. Was it a 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1 or something entirely different?

The general bewilderment is testament to the fluidity of his team, something which shone through for their second goal as Romelu Lukaku’s brilliant play on the counter set up Kevin De Bruyne’s finish. In its simplest form though, it was both a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-3 with the Belgians switching seamlessly between both formations.

They defended with a back four, denying Brazil’s dangerous wingers freedom of space, but with possession, they shifted to a three-man defence with Jan Vertonghen holding back while Nacer Chadli shuttled out from central midfield to the left flank.

Not only did this allow the West Brom player to use his pace out wide, but ensured De Bruyne had enough space through the middle in his false nine role. Meanwhile, Lukaku was deployed on the right of a front three to take advantage of Marcelo’s tendency to go forward.

However, this ploy may not work as well against France as Lucas Hernandez is more disciplined in defence while Blaise Matuidi will patrol that side as well. With Thomas Meunier suspended the use of wingbacks seems unfeasible.

A more orthodox 4-3-3 may instead be the order of the day with Chadli stepping in at right-back. De Bruyne will still retain an advanced role though, and Belgium can rely on his link-up play with Eden Hazard and Lukaku to create chances.

POGBA UNLOCKED

Despite the wealth of attacking players at his disposal and the immense technical ability they possess, Didier Deschamps has been determined to keep things simple. France are bound to set up in their usual 4-2-3-1 system.

The use of a central midfielder on the left has been his most innovative ploy and he deserves credit for it but his subtle tweak which unlocked Paul Pogba is also worthy of praise. The left of a three-man central midfield has widely been accepted as the Manchester United star’s best position, one he flourished in at Juventus.

However, Deschamps has moved him to the right to good effect. Matuidi taking up the left flank means the penetration down that side is limited. If Pogba were to play on the left of a three, he’d naturally try to compensate for that by attempting to dribble the ball forward himself or look for a diagonal switch to the right, which can become predictable.

His role on the right side – while rendering France a little lopsided – sees his vision, flair and quick passing complimented by the trickery and pace of Kylian Mbappe.

This also serves to free-up Antoine Griezmann as he can come short and exchange passes in a triangle also involving Mbappe and Pogba or pull wide into space, which is how France’s second goal against Uruguay was scored. Pogba drove forward into the space vacated by Griezmann before laying it off for Corentin Tolisso who in turn assisted the Atletico Madrid forward after he drifted into a wide position on the left.

With a helping hand from Fernando Muslera, he fired France into the semi-finals. This ploy may be key against Belgium depending on who replaces Meunier at right-back.

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Doubts remain over Luis Enrique's pedigree as ex Barca boss must give Spain new identity

Andy West 9/07/2018
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After winning a league, cup and Champions League treble in his first season at Barcelona, and then adding the double 12 months later, you might think that Luis Enrique’s services would be in hot demand.

Strangely, though, that has never been the case and there will be a sense of underwhelming apathy after the former forward was confirmed as Spain’s new manager on a two-year contract.

It will be an intriguing appointment, both for Spain and for Luis Enrique himself.

The national team, of course, is in the midst of a crisis after losing previous boss Julen Lopetegui to Real Madrid on the eve of the World Cup and then suffering a poor tournament in Russia, being assailed by a mountain of criticism after the penalty shoot-out defeat to the hosts.

The flat and flaccid manner of that performance has led to calls – both within Spain and internationally – for the team’s famous ‘tiki-taka’ possession-based passing game to be abandoned in favour of a more contemporary fast-paced style.

Spanish football isn’t only appointing a new national team manager, but also addressing an identity crisis which is threatening to undermine and unravel everything La Roja has stood for over the course of the last decade.

For Luis Enrique, this is nothing new. He arrived at Barcelona in the summer of 2014, in the wake of a desperately disappointing trophyless season under hapless Argentina coach Tata Martino, who oversaw the dying embers of Pep Guardiola’s classic team with seemingly little idea about how things could be taken forward.

And for the first few months of his Camp Nou reign, Enrique also struggled desperately with that challenge, not helped by the fact that his club’s big summer signing, Luis Suarez, missed the first three months of the season through suspension after biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup.

When Enrique finally got all his pieces together, he oversaw something approaching a revolution: Lionel Messi was removed from his false nine position and repositioned on the right wing; Xavi Hernandez was eased out of the team and replaced by Ivan Rakitic, and long balls from the back attempted to get the ball to Messi, Suarez and Neymar as quickly as possible, often bypassing the previous engine room of the midfield.

Tiki-taka was dead, but Barcelona were revitalised and – inspired by the matchless magnificence of the forward three – embarked upon a sensational six-month run of form to win every honour going in exhilarating fashion.

Throughout that glorious period, however, there was an unusual level of suspicion about the manager: did Luis Enrique mastermind the new playing scheme, or Messi? Was the team winning because of the coach, or despite him?

Those negative wonderings grew louder and louder as time went on, and by the time he left Barcelona at the end of his third season, having lost La Liga and the Champions League to Real Madrid, it was clear that his time was up.

And there were still, even though he won nine trophies in just three years, serious doubts about whether he is actually a decent coach – reflected in the strange fact that, more than a year after leaving the Camp Nou, he has never really been seriously linked with any top jobs until now.

In a sense, then, by accepting the challenge of leading his national team, Enrique will be back exactly where he was four years ago, tasked with overhauling a team with soaring expectations and high historical levels of success, but whose playing style has grown stale and tired.

FC Barcelona vs Deportivo Alaves - Copa Del Rey Final

This time, of course, the difference is that he will not have Messi – or any other player around whom his team should be built.

At Barcelona, Enrique was to a great extent coaching with his hands tied behind his back, prevented from clearly realising his own vision – whatever vision that might have been – by the need to keep his star players, especially the front three, happy.

With Spain, though, he will be able to do whatever he wants, and it will be fascinating to witness exactly how he goes about that process.

What kind of coach is Luis Enrique? Even though he spent three years at Barcelona, enjoying wild levels of success for part of that time, we still don’t really know.

But we’re about to find out.

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Criticism directed at England star Raheem Sterling is 'disgusting', says Gary Neville

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Raheem Sterling has come under fire.

Former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville has hit back at criticism aimed at Raheem Sterling on social media.

The 23-year old has been under fire even before the World Cup started, with many questioning his choice of tattoos and his performances week in-week out.

Neville, however, believes all the negative comments Sterling has received over the past few weeks have been unfair and “disgusting”.

The Manchester City star missed a one-on-one chance to score for England against Sweden in the quarter-final clash, but was an attacking threat throughout for Gareth Southgate‘s team.

Yet, he wasn’t spared on Twitter and some fans were very critical of his value to the team.

Pundit Gary Neville

“The actual treatment at half-time of him across social media was absolutely disgusting, and isn’t representative of the performance he put in,” Neville told ITV.

“To run in-behind [Andreas] Granqvist all that time, he kept getting in and getting in. OK, we didn’t have the cherry on the cake, the goal, where all of a sudden you’re a hero, but it was a brilliant performance.”

Meanwhile, David Beckham too agreed with Neville’s thoughts, saying: “Haven’t seen this but whatever it is it’s wrong,” Beckham wrote in an Instagram story.

“We are in the semi final of a World Cup. Every player deserves to be applauded. We as a country are united and behind the team.”

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