Tactical Analysis: Stars align for France against Croatia in unlikely goalfest
France defeated Croatia to become World Champions in a final which produced few big chances but six goals.
Tactics make things happen and, whether these happenings seem fair or unfair on face value, it is impossible to speak about the individual without acknowledging the collective actions of eleven players.
That should really go without saying, especially leading into a tactical review of one of the biggest games in the football calendar, but this was no ordinary game and, indeed, no ordinary World Cup.
Not ordinary and certainly not high quality but it was entertaining nonetheless. There were also no real standout stars in the usual sense but there was one bright young spark — Kylian Mbappe — who walks, or sprints, away with a winners medal.
Some might argue there were no real standout teams either but, from a tactical point of view, there were plenty of intriguing clashes and the final didn’t let us down.
In the event, the final somehow encapsulated the whole tournament with three sweet strikes, refereeing controversy, a VAR moment and some inexplicable (but nevertheless amusing) moments.
On the face of it, the game produced a convincing winner and a plucky, underdog loser but there were tactical traits from both sides which belied these perceptions. These traits somehow contributed to the highest scoring World Cup final since 1966 and the highest scoring in 90 minutes since 1958.
For France, it was their patience in waiting for a counter-attack in the game’s early stages before launching Mbappe for the first time. Antoine Griezmann fell to the floor shortly after, displaying the invaluable ability to win a free kick when no foul had been committed, from which Mario Mandzukic scored the first own goal in World Cup final history.
It was France’s corner routine, which took a leaf out of England’s book as the French players lined up by the penalty area, Blaise Matuidi darted forward and headed onto Perisic’s hand. Hardly deliberate, but penalty given. Controversy.
It was Mbappe and Paul Pogba fooling Croatia’s battle-weary goalkeeper Danijel Subasic with their perfect placement and power, and Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti looking like defenders from the future, reading the game like the match report was already written. New global stars with the medals to prove it.
For Croatia, it was their midfield control in the opening stages coupled with high pressing from deserved Golden Ball winner Luka Modric which saw him commit two fouls in the opening three minutes.
It was Ante Rebic, hardly touching the ball but somehow having more shots than anyone else during his 71 minutes on the pitch, setting the tone with mere positioning and allowing Sime Vrsaljko to keep France tucked uncomfortably inside their own half.
It was the gristle and guile of Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic, their final throw of the dice after a tournament tough on experienced legs.
Croatia’s high intensity would later lead directly to a consolation goal for Mario Mandzukic as he closed down the careless Hugo Lloris, who was fortunate his error didn’t have a bigger impact on the result.
It was the biggest chance of the game in open play and it came as much from a tactical decision as it did from an error. Some tactical decisions make errors happen.
The expected goals graphic from Caley Graphics illustrates how much of this game was unexpected. The pink squares show goals scored in open play with own goals and penalties not included in the main xG total. The small size of these squares shows how unlikely they were to result in goals with Mandzukic’s opportunistic effort from Lloris’ error the only “big chance”.
The game produced the unusual scenario where the xG score is much lower than the actual score and the xG value of the losing side is higher than that of the winner.
In many ways, Croatia were unlucky as the xG suggests. The penalty that wasn’t, the free kick that wasn’t which led to the opening goal and then the subsequent collapse which allowed France to add a third and fourth.
But they weren’t helped by a poor display from goalkeeper Subasic. Low xG goals conceded compared to actual goals conceded doesn’t always mean the keeper has had a bad game but, in this case, the man in green looked to have taken root between the posts.
He made two fatal jumps to his left shortly before both the Pogba and Mbappe strikes that won the game for France. In his defence, he had a crowd of players in front of him but he could have used them to cover one side of the goal rather than jump behind them.
The Monaco stopper picked up an injury against Russia that, at the time, looked like it would mean the end of his tournament but he carried on, not just in that game but throughout the rest of the knockout stages.
The way he failed to react to these two shots, needlessly shifting to his left before failing to generate enough spring to recover and spring the other way, suggested the injury lingered and was, therefore, a contributing factor to this strange game.
France’s Shooting Stars
Despite having the team of stars, France were reactive while Croatia used the class of their midfielders to take the initiative and try to control the game.
They did this through Modric, Ivan Rakitic, holding midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, and right back Vrsaljko, who has been heavily involved and impressive throughout the tournament. This is illustrated in the passing network map shown below, courtesy of 11tegen11.
This Croatian dominance forced N’golo Kante (No. 13) into retreat mode as suggested in the average positions graphic from WhoScored (below).
The French midfielder had an outstanding tournament until the final game, where he was unable to assert his usual authority and snappiness in the centre of the park. It also meant Matuidi (14) was acting merely as a support to left-back Lucas Hernandez rather than as an extra midfielder.
However, despite these negatives the plan worked. France’s stars won them the game although, until the introduction of Steven N’Zonzi, Pogba was alone in their midfield.
It’s no surprise that the winning goals came after N’Zonzi’s introduction. It was a brave decision from Didier Deschamps to sub one of the world’s best in Kante, but it needed to be done to add at least some control.
Pogba’s part in his own goal cannot be underestimated and his pass out to Mbappe was reminiscent of a similar ball from Kevin De Bruyne earlier in the tournament. Mbappe’s pace was used to full effect and the uncertainty this placed in the minds of defenders gave him the space to add his own name to the score sheet later on.
France’s ploy of defending their box against Croatia’s schemers before releasing their stars worked and, although their striker, Olivier Giroud, didn’t register a single shot on target in the tournament -never mind score a goal – in the end, he didn’t need to as the exciting Mbappe did the damage around him.
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