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World Cup Thoughts – Day 19
Morocco vs Portugal and England vs France
Yep, sorry this one took a while, but let’s get stuck in.
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Morocco 1-0 Portugal
Consider me stumped on this one.
Portugal did all the things against Morocco that Spain didn’t. Their attacking plan was all about playing it fast with players making runs in behind. They targeted exactly what Spain struggled to do and lost anyway. Morocco didn’t drastically change their approach. They were still compact without the ball in a mid-block, avoiding getting sucked in too deep when Portugal had spells of possession.
Hitting it fast to dynamic attackers is exactly what I would’ve suggested Portugal do, and it just didn’t work. After Portugal tried and failed to take the initiative, Morocco got ahead just before half time. Diogo Costa did a terrible job reading a cross and let Youssef En-Nesyri beat him to score. Morocco didn’t want half time to come after that, as the goal seemed to spook Portugal enough to let the Atlas Lions take control.
Morocco inevitably sat in a little deeper in the second half as they defended a lead. Portugal took control of the game, but they did a really poor job of turning that dominance into chances. I don’t completely understand what happened here. Portugal just didn’t have any ideas against a reasonably well organised opponent. They threw on Cristiano Ronaldo and Rafael Leão but it really didn’t matter. A team with this many good attackers should’ve had a much better way to create chances than this. It was a really tactically straightforward football match.
Are Morocco legit? One goal conceded in the World Cup so far, from about 4.8 xG. They’ve obviously been getting the rub of the green in terms of opponents not finishing well, but holding Spain and Portugal to one expected goal each is impressive, especially when both sides were spending the entire game trying to score a goal. They rode their luck somewhat to get here, but I don’t think it’s a huge injustice. I’m fascinated to see how they deal with France, who have a much more varied attack than either Spain or Portugal, as we’ll get onto now.
England 1-2 France
Both teams picked unchanged lineups from their Round of 16 wins. This was to be expected from France, but there had been questions about whether England would change shape to a back three. Gareth Southgate resisted that temptation.
He could afford to do that because England’s shape really became a back three at times. Pep Guardiola says formations are little more than “telephone numbers” and this was a good example of that. While left back Luke Shaw would push up higher and take conventional full back positions, right back Kyle Walker would drop in along the centre backs and create a back three. Meanwhile, central midfielder Jordan Henderson would drift right at times to fill the space that a right wing-back might be expected to take up in a 3-4-3 system. England were trying to get the benefits of both systems here.
The reason behind this was obvious: Kylian Mbappé. The Paris Saint-Germain forward is arguably the best in the world right now and has been on fire in this tournament, torching full backs as he attacks that left channel. Walker is the right sort of player to deal with the threat, but even he needs help against Mbappé, so England wanted to give him some help out there. Some might say Kieran Trippier at right wing-back would be the player to do that, but Mbappé is very reliant on one-twos from Antoine Griezmann or Adrien Rabiot drifting to his side from midfield. England needed someone in that space between the midfield and Mbappé blocking opportunities. Henderson was the man for that job.
The plan worked against Mbappé. England cut off the dangerous passes he might receive. In the three previous games he started, Mbappé received an average of 13 progressive passes. Against England, he received two. France just weren’t able to get it to their star man running into space. When he did get the ball, he found it difficult to deal with Walker and Henderson. He attempted just one shot and just never quite connected with the attackers around him properly. England successfully did a job on Mbappé.
But football, the saying goes, is a short blanket. “If I cover my head, I uncover my feet, and vice versa”. England used a lot of their short blanket to cover Mbappé, inevitably leaving gaps for others. Ousmane Dembélé seemed to get the better of Luke Shaw, and Antoine Griezmann really started to get going in the second half from midfield. England could’ve had the back four shift over to help Shaw deal with Dembélé, or have Henderson stay in midfield to deny space for Griezmann, but that would’ve left Mbappé exposed. Choices, choices. France have so many different attacking threats that you’re always leaving someone open.
England did have good moments attacking through Bukayo Saka. In big games like this, where there will be opportunities in transition, Saka and Jude Bellingham are really the perfect players to have. If this World Cup has cemented anything for England, it’s that the core of the national team going forward will be based around Saka, Bellingham and Phil Foden.
(Southgate’s choice to take Saka off was highly controversial. I haven’t seen any confirmations of this, but I’ve heard people say he looked like he was carrying a knock, which probably explains it.)
I’ve put in the race chart above, but this game isn’t a great one for xG. England clearly “won”, but that was almost entirely down to penalties. If you take those out, France have a very slight edge, but they were penalties. Everyone in the world saw that England had a chance to equalise with Kane’s second spot kick. This was a very contested game, with both teams putting together some good moments and finding it hard against an organised opponent. It was decided on Aurélien Tchouaméni scoring an absolute screamer in the first half and Kane missing a penalty in the second.
I don’t know what will happen next, but I think this is a better French team than the one that won in 2018. I never imagined Griezmann could really become a playmaker like this in Paul Pogba’s absence, while having Dembélé down the right gives them much more options than hitting Mbappé every time. I think the France of 2018 would’ve lost this game, but they’ve found many more ways to beat an opponent since then. For me, they have to be considered favourites to win the World Cup right now.