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A central midfielder, and false nine, and now a right winger; Kevin de Bruyne is a jack of all trades, master of… well, all trades, apparently.
Starting on the right side of a front three against France in Belgium’s FIFA World Cup semi-final, de Bruyne was seen drifting into the middle at times, as right-wing-back Nacer Chadli provided the width on the flank.
Other moments saw him drop deep to collect the ball, or linger in the archetypal No.10 position, or push forward past the defensive line as an auxiliary striker.
Roberto Martinez’s attacking scheme is a fluid, multi-faceted system that demands a certain versatility and adaptability from the players in it; in this way, de Bruyne is Belgium’s most important player. Martinez waxed lyrical on this subject in the days before the semi-final.
Still, in perhaps a less versatile but slight more persistent way, Belgium’s most important player is Eden Hazard, a player for whom the wings are the natural home, who did largely winger-type things in this match, and who for all his comparative specificity, was his side’s best attacker.
The wisdom of France’s decision to play on the counter, the default Didier Deschamps position, was truly tested here. The offensive might of Belgium is unmatched in this tournament, and the dizzying cocktail of movement and sheer force meant France had to seriously reassess whether relying primarily on their defence to launch attacks was even a viable option.
After a short period of possession to begin the game, France settled back into their counter-ready stance, and so formed the basic demeanour of the contest; Belgium pushing forward, passing across the pitch, searching for a gap to exploit.
France were forced not just to reckon with all the traditional Belgian attackers, but also with a marauding Marouane Fellaini – who started in midfield again for the second straight game – who romped forward to contest aerial passes, causing Raphael Varane in particular acute concern.
Hazard, meanwhile, was roasting Benjamin Pavard on the French right hand side, beating him off the dribble time and time again. Three times in the first half Hazard threatened to score; first he was denied by Varane’s head after cutting and shooting, then he speared a shot wide, then he forced Hugo Lloris into a sharp save. All three chances came from the left, bypassing or losing Pavard.
When they lose the ball, Belgium press hard to get it back within five or ten seconds, a customary Martinez direction. The key for France’s counter-attacks was whether they could survive and make forward progress during these intense periods, and it was a test they passed, by and large, in the first half.
Paul Pogba, Antoine Greizmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud all have quick enough feet and reactions to thrive while under heavy duress.
Obviously, Mbappe was central to all France’s best moments; he tore away down the wing in the opening 15 seconds, and kept on at that pace for most of his time on the ball. It was from Mbappe’s neat through ball, exposing the ever-present fragility in this Belgian defence, that sent Pavard through. Only Thibaut Courtois’ ankle prevented the opening goal.
The wing shared by Hazard and Mbappe was the main action area, stocked as it was with two absolute menaces, both of whom were found occasionally wanting in their defensive tracking. Set pieces, typically in this World Cup, were steeped with added importance; Toby Alderweireld tested Lloris with a snap-shot from a corner, and Greizmann struck a free kick into the red wall shortly before the half.
The break came, with both teams having enjoyed clear chances, giving both reason to think their differing, dovetailing approaches would win them the lead at some point.
So, for all this tactical tussling and consideration of how these teams would meet in the open field, Samuel Umtiti opened the scoring from, yes, yet another set-piece conversion. A corner, swooped into the near post found, Umtiti, who had escaped the clutches of Fellaini. He glanced a header past Courtois, and France led.
Fellaini grimaced, as Umtiti strutted off to celebrate with Pogba at the corner flag. This was the ideal start to the second half for France; a set piece goal to further coax out their opponents, and as a result be even more vulnerable on the counter.
Mbappe nearly crafted a second goal, playing Giroud in with a sublime backheel. Only Moussa Dembele’s desperate tackle saved a second going in.
As Belgium’s urgency lifted, and France’s counter-play relaxed into a one-goal-up, well-oiled state, it became clear just how high-spec this contest was, how staggering the collection of blue-chip attackers on show here was, and how wonderful the latter stages of the World Cup can be when the footballing quality concentrates into this rare, ambrosial nectar.
Dries Mertens was brought on, for Dembele, and took up an advanced position that shunted de Bruyne back into his more usual central midfield spot. Mertens and de Bruyne got to work on the right, setting and resetting a crossing position that ended with Fellaini heading just wide. De Bruyne, his influence growing, was then seen working with Hazard on the left, setting the team up to cross from that side. The match ticked past the 75th minute.
A few wild collisions sent a number of France players to the floor, eating up precious seconds. Yannick Carrasco came on for Fellaini, a substitution which significantly reduced the viability of crosses into the area. This France defence is formidable, and with the added gamesmanship, Belgium’s situation was becoming increasingly desperate.
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Belgium’s vigour waned, and France’s excitement grew. There was no coherent strategy to Belgium’s late-game offence, as ball were punted or crossed aimlessly, more in hope than intention. Martinez’s substitutions were also questionable, a common criticism.
France could have scored a second, with Courtois saving twice as the embers of this match faded. The final whistle went, and France were 1-0 winners, almost exactly as Deschamps would have scripted.
The two managers here made inverted decisions; with such quality in defence, Belgium leave the back to its own devices, confident they can do enough defensively to let the attack win them the game.
For France, the quality in attack is such that Deschamps can be confident that his team will score, leaving him free to focus on making sure the opposition don’t. Deschamps’s gameplan hasn’t really changed all tournament; Martinez’s seems in a constant state of flux.
Underpinning this clash of spangling players was a clash of ideology; and, perhaps predictably, the more conservative, more stoic ideology won.