Welcome to the second installation of Corner Kickabout, where our writers engage in honest, and opinionated, conversation about the footballing world. Today our focus is on the upcoming World Cup semifinal between European powerhouses Belgium and France. Read on below to learn more about our takes for what is sure to be a thrilling game!
Nick Govindan: Although Belgium took out the heavy tournament favorites in Brazil, there hasn’t been a team that has looked as fluid and decisive as France in these knockout stages. Against Argentina, they utilized the inclusion of Blaise Matuidi at left midfield to initiate a rapid counterattack against an open Albiceleste. Against Uruguay, a team with an exceptional defensive pedigree, Les Bleus adapted their game to take advantage of their physicality, scoring from set piece opportunities and playing a more possession oriented game. While Belgium can feel optimistic about the way Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini performed in central midfield against the Selecao, N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba have been the most dynamic midfield duo at this tournament. It’s funny to think how well these two compliment each other, considering their personalities are as varied as you would find in teammates. Kante’s workrate is vital, covering the most mileage out of any French player, and has been influential in shutting down Argentina’s Rolls Royce attackers and containing Uruguay midfielders Lucas Torreira and Rodrigo Bentancur. The flamboyant Pogba has continued to impress throughout the tournament, and will benefit from playing against a wide open Belgium midfield. While Belgium can certainly be proud of beating Brazil, France will evolve their strategy once more to make their way to the World Cup final.
Nathan Strauss: I think Belgium actually may have unlocked a strange solution to their squad’s imbalance. By playing Witsel and Fellaini in defensive midfield, and having them sit above the back three, their three centre backs are able to push a little wider and help cover for their wing-backs, which was a real weakness for them coming in. Starting Nacer Chadli over Carrasco certainly helped as well. Of course, there are casualties for that tactical change – Roberto Martinez was forced to drop Dries Mertens – but allowing Kevin de Bruyne to play in his natural position made it well worth it. Another interesting tactic that Belgium explored against Brazil was pulling Romelu Lukaku out a little wider and isolating him against a center back, which created overloads during counterattacks. While this did mean that Belgium were not able to use him for hold-up play per se, he was able to overpower Miranda on many occasions and use his pace and football IQ to get himself into important positions with and without the ball. I think that it will be interesting to see how the three principal attackers of Belgium line up against the back four of France, especially considering how attack-minded Pavard and Hernandez have shown themselves to be. Indeed, the attacking trident of Eden Hazard, de Bruyne, and Lukaku are a threat to any defence, and I would be surprised if this match finished without goals.
Caleb Rhodes: I think France will win. Going off of Nathan’s point, I think Martinez showed more tactically flexibility than we have come to expect from him. Playing Fellaini allowed De Bruyne to go forward. He took out Carrasco, who we have highlighted for weeks has been awful, and installed Chadli in his place. These changes allowed De Bruyne in particular to thrive. However, one thing that marks France out over Belgium still is the fact that every player pretty much is playing in their natural position. Teams perform best when their players are playing where they are most comfortable. That’s why in FIFA Ultimate Team those chemistry ratings matter. That’s why if you play with those silly Adidas All-Star teams and have to play Marcelo at center back, they struggle. Belgium, regardless of their total quality, are playing people out of position, and they have not settled on a formation that truly allows everyone to feel most comfortable. This is where France have an edge. Additionally, even though France have a longer timeline for contending in major tournaments – Mbappe for one could play in another three World Cups easily – they are still ready to succeed now. However, in the scenario where the Belgians do win this semifinal, they will also likely win the final because they are better than both Croatia and England. This game then is functionally the final because whoever wins this is likely to win the final itself.
NG: If we’re going to discuss managers, then I think that very few fans are giving Didier Deschamps the credit he deserves for continuing to be tactically flexible as the World Cup has progressed. His choice to start Olivier Giroud after the dreadful display against Australia has proved to be the missing puzzle piece that links this fluid French attack together. Against Australia, Griezmann played as the number nine, and Deschamp’s formation relied far too much on the Atletico man’s individual flair to create chances for Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele. While Giroud certainly isn’t the most technically gifted player in this semi final; his hold up play and creation of space has been the catalyst for Mbappe and Griezmann’s dynamism in the last two matches. Another key tactical shift implemented by Deschamps has been the use of defensive midfielders Blaise Matuidi and Corentin Tolisso, who started in place of the suspended Matuidi against Uruguay, as left wingers who can also tuck into central midfield. This flexibility will be key against Belgium as it offers a sturdier defense against The Red Devil’s four man midfield, and can also instigate a creative counter attack.
NS: At the very least, this game should be a high-quality affair. Unlike some of the quarterfinal matches, at this point teams should be more comfortable going forward. I think whoever scores the first goal will have a huge advantage: if Belgium score first, France will have to push higher up, leaving their back four exposed (similar to what happened to Brazil). However, if France score first, Belgium will be forced to commit more men into their attack, thereby isolating their slightly lackluster wing-backs and leaving plenty of space for Kylian Mbappe. f I had to predict a score for this game I would say 3-2, or maybe 2-1, both to Belgium, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it swung the other way.
CR: While admittedly this is a close matchup, I still believe France will overcome Belgium. The latter’s victory over Brazil was impressive, but you have to remember they were severely outshot by the South Americans and relied heavily on the counterattack to score. Belgium scored with two of their three shots on target, and expecting that kind of conversion rate to continue is a tall order. If France score first, then Belgium will not be able to defend as deeply, and because they will be forced to respond will instead just open themselves up further for France to attack. Be careful in buying the hype of Belgium after their Brazil performance. The timing of their relatively early goals that put Brazil on the backfoot for most of the game was crucial in realizing their strategy. Furthermore, France’s midfield is a lot heartier than Brazil’s. Fernandinho, in particular, was poor in Casemiro’s place, and I think the result for Belgium was more impressive than their actual performance. France will learn from Brazil’s mistakes and in the end will seal a 2-1 victory .
NG: I’m going to echo my sentiments from our Kickabout previewing France vs Uruguay: Les Bleus just have too many weapons to be stopped. France have already displayed how destructive they can be against a free flowing Argentina, and how precise and lethal they can be when handling a sturdy Uruguay side. The returning Matuidi will be key for France, and will help them unlock Belgium on the break. Mbappe has been the form player of this tournament and he’ll be looking to feast on a back three that includes an aging Vincent Kompany. Expect goals in this game, Belgium are no doubt the best team France have played so far, but as Caleb said: this team is ready to succeed now. I will go for a 2-1 victory for France on their road to the final.
Thanks so much for reading! Be on the lookout for our next Corner Kickabout and many other recaps and opinion pieces coming your way in the near future. Enjoy the footy.