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  • Writer's pictureChristian Marchetti

Matildas Opposition Watch: France

The Matildas will take on France in a blockbuster FIFA Women's World Cup quarterfinal at Brisbane Stadium this Saturday. Front Page Football was at Hindmarsh Stadium on Tuesday night to witness a firsthand insight into the nuances of Herve Renard's side and what tactical challenge they will pose for Australia, having seen off Morocco with ease.

Kadidiatou Diani celebrates France's first goal against Morocco. (FIFA)

France's Round of 16 tie against Morocco was always billed as a David vs Goliath battle, with the European powerhouse ensuring they would not be the next giant taking a tumble at this year's World Cup, dispatching their opposition 4-0.

But how did Herve Renard set up his outfit against the Moroccans, and what tweaks can Tony Gustavsson employ to combat them?

Firstly, the returns of Sandie Toletti, Kenza Dali, Eugenie Le Sommer, and Sakina Karchaoui were huge for France. Although she returned, Wendie Renard is not mentioned in this list, as her impact on the game, at least from a tactical standpoint, was less prevalent. The other four were integral to most of what France did in possession.

As will be discussed in greater detail, the most eye-catching aspect of France's display was its fluid system and flexible movement in possession. From the first minute, Morocco's passive 4-4-2 formation had no answers to the many attacking questions and tactical ploys France posed.

Given the uncompetitive nature of the second half in Adelaide, the first period is where much of this analysis will focus, as France had their opposition in sixes and sevens.

Despite eventually settling on an attack-minded 4-2-4 formation, France had begun the game with a back three. Toletti was utilised as the sole defensive midfielder, or number six, whilst Le Sommer and strike partner Kadidiatou Diani played very close to each other in a front two. A 3-1-4-2 system was used in the early stages, as Grace Geyoro and Selma Bacha operated as two advanced number eights ahead of Toletti. But Bacha also drifted wider towards the left sometimes, working closer to Le Sommer and Diani. It was unorthodox from the stands, particularly with Geyoro deployed in a hybrid midfield role, sometimes sitting alongside Toletti and having the license to push forward and join attacks.

But as the half wore on, it became clear the system Renard was attempting to use against Morocco was a 4-2-4. Bacha and Dali were the advanced wingers on either side, and with Dali pushing as high as she did down the right side, it allowed Diani to have ample space to exploit centrally. She and Le Sommer were also instructed to occupy Morocco's two central defenders, Nouhaila Benzina and Nesryne El Chad.

This 4-2-4 formed the basis of much of what France did to punish Morocco and score the three first-half goals that had them on their way to a comfortable win. Within this system, Renard utilised different nuances to get the best out of his side offensively. In truth, Morocco probably had yet to react to their first tactical wrinkle by the time the fifth was on display.

In the ninth minute, Dali drifted inside from her wide starting position to become more of an inside forward, which allowed Eve Perisset to push on from right back and join the attack. Meanwhile, Le Sommer had begun to drop deeper between the lines, a movement the Matildas struggled to defend when used by Denmark's Pernille Harder. Morocco attempted to handle all of these headaches whilst having a non-existent possession game, with France's counter-pressing at an elite level. They always sent two players to press the ball immediately after losing it, resulting in multiple Moroccan sequences with few passes and possession relinquished quickly.

Back to Dali. The midfielder was a fascinating figure in Adelaide, embodying France's tactical flexibility through her performance. In the 11th minute, she seemed to drift inside again, this time as an advanced eight in the right half-space, with Geyoro in the left half-space and Toletti underneath both as the deepest lying midfielder. Diani showed the same flexibility two minutes later, drifting towards the left side on a throw-in, which she received before turning inside onto her right and shooting over the crossbar. A minute later, Morocco responded by changing their system to a 5-3-2, with Reynald Pedros seemingly thinking an extra centre half would be beneficial to deal with the dual threat of Le Sommer and Diani.

But the change proved mute for Morocco. In the 15th minute, we saw both Karchaoui and Bacha benefit from the system, with a lovely give-and-go down the left side leading to the former crossing in for Diani, who had cleverly lost Benzina in the penalty area to finish with a free header. Like much of France's build-up, this goal was created under little Moroccan resistance, who opted not to press their opponents when France had goal kicks. You would not think Tony Gustavsson, who has consistently hammered home the importance of Australia's "pressing game", would allow his side to sit back, particularly with a raucous home crowd behind them.

It allowed Toletti, in particular, ample room to operate when France played out from goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin. The midfielder is clever, as she did not move from her central position, allowing Geyoro and Dali more freedom to push forward and create overloads in the box on crosses. In the build-up phase, Toletti sometimes became a 'false fullback' - where the defensive midfielder covers a fullback who moves forward. On such occasions, Perisset drifted into the right half-space, inverting, and Dali held the width, more as a wingback. France seemingly had no definitive six in such moments, which was peculiar.

Dali was everywhere. For the second goal, she drifted inside again, and this time, she initially played Diani behind the defence, and then, eventually, she received the striker's pullback to make it 2-0. This goal was one of many examples of Morocco's midfield pivot and wide players needing guidance on who to mark between Dali and Bacha on either side. Given the duo's positioning, Morocco's fullbacks could protect the wide spaces. But it would've left Benzina and El Chad in 2v2 situations with Diani and Le Sommer, which is far too dangerous. Australia must avoid this scenario from befalling Alanna Kennedy and Clare Hunt on Saturday.

So, how could Australia combat the movements of Bacha and Dali? Hanane Ait El Haj had some success against Bacha when she picked her up 'touch tight'. Tight is the operative word here. Say it is Ellie Carpenter on the weekend, who has already had issues being caught out against both Nigeria and Denmark, who allows Bacha to receive and face forward; Karchaoui will push on from her left-back role and create 2v1s down that side of the pitch. Bacha may also come to feet sometimes when Karchaoui is on the ball. In the 40th minute, Ait El Haj made the mistake of following her closely when she made this movement. But the Lyon player responded by spinning behind her opposite number and receiving a weighted through ball from the left-back. So whichever way you put it, Carpenter should have her work cut out.

But she can certainly do it. What she or any other of the Matildas can do is give up goals like Morocco did for France's third and Le Sommer's first on the night. El Chad tried to shield the ball out, but it didn't roll enough, with Diani's excellent pressure forcing a turnover that caused the ball to fall the way of Le Sommer to score.

France now had their attacking swagger in abundance, and five minutes after that goal, we started to truly see the complete flexibility of what Australia's next opponent could do to hurt their opponents. In the 28th minute, there was a complex interchange as Bacha moved centrally to play just off Le Sommer, with Diani pulling over to the left. An eventual ricochet in this passage led to Diani teeing up Bacha, who made a run into the box but was smothered in her attempt to score. A minute later, it was Dali drifting inside again and Diani pulling out again, leaving Morocco left-back Zineb Redouani unsure whether she should mark Diani or Dali. A scenario like this requires expert communication between the fullbacks and the midfield pivot ahead of them; defensive communication between Carpenter, Steph Catley, Katrina Gorry, and Kyra Cooney-Cross will be imperative.

Back to Toletti, who seemed to enjoy her stroll under the Adelaide lights, such was the passivity of Morocco. On some occasions that she pulled out of midfield as a false fullback, Geyoro would drop in as the 'new' six, creating more space for Le Sommer and Diani to drop between the lines.

"It's my game. I mean, I try to play with my quality, and I knew that against Morocco, I will have the space to be between lines, and yeah, I tried to help the team with that," Le Sommer said post-game when asked about her positioning against Reynald Pedros' side.

Toletti is the key to helping create the space for the lines ahead of her, particularly for the dynamic frontline of Le Sommer and Diani. As the first half wore on, she continued to retreat deeper in possession, always looking to receive and face forward and happy to drop in front of Morocco’s first line of engagement. The Matildas may be satisfied with Toletti receiving in front of this line of engagement (likely still Mary Fowler and Emily van Egmond), but they must be aware of how France reacts further up the pitch.

Another aspect Australia must have on high alert is France's ability to bring the ball to the ground quickly so they can retain possession and make the pitch bigger instantly. Having a defender like Renard is undoubtedly crucial to this ploy, but Australia must compete for every second ball, something Gustavsson lamented about the Nigeria defeat.

But one thing the Matildas can pick up from where they left off against Canada and Denmark and should be able to implement against France successfully is quick counter-attacking football. On the handful of moments Morocco had counter-attacking opportunities, France seemed susceptible to conceding by opening up the pitch so much in possession. The reality is Morocco doesn’t have the quality to exploit it. But as Mary Fowler showed when teeing up Caitlin Foord with one of the tournament's best passes on Monday night, the Matildas do.

Renard's use of the false fullback ensures his side uses the entire pitch in possession but also makes them more vulnerable with less midfield counter-cover. Geyoro is capable of performing the Toletti role too. When playing a team like Morocco, it was understandable that the system was so flexible, and many parts had differing roles at various points.

Dali and Bacha were happy to switch sides on occasion, and it was noted that when Toletti or Geyoro dropped out of the midfield area to join the build-up, the two wide players drifted inside into the half-spaces.

Again, we come back to the overarching feature of how Renard deployed his wide players - it would be a massive surprise if the Matildas did not face something similar. To put the focus on Bacha and Dali's movement under the microscope even more, in the 44th minute, Dali pushed so high she was spearheading a narrow front three alongside Le Sommer and Diani. A minute later, there was an interchange between Bacha and Perisset down the right, where Bacha momentarily dropped in as the right-back. It cannot be stressed enough that she and Dali covered almost every blade of grass at Hindmarsh. As already touched on, Karchaoui was unlocked in an attacking sense against the Moroccans, but it again originated from the movements of Dali and Bacha. The left-back will always bomb on behind the last line if either winger comes towards the ball when one of France's centre-backs, Renard or Elisa De Almeida, is on the ball.

As mentioned above, not everything was about Dali and Bacha. The relationship between Le Sommer and Diani is intriguing, with the former often the striker that drops between the midfielder and defence. Renard wants Diani to stay higher and on the last defender because of her pace and ability to break lines (illustrated perfectly with the second goal).

Out of possession, there was little to judge France on, to be honest. One wrinkle was Toletti being extremely close to her back four when Morocco had the ball, but again such moments were few and far between. What we can gather from this game from a Matildas perspective is how France will approach their possession game in Brisbane.

As was confirmed by Dali post-match, France did deploy "a new system". You could feel at the start Renard's side wasn't as comfortable with it but found reassurance as the first half wore on.

"France used to play in 4-3-3; now it's 4-4-2. You don't have time to adapt. Football is football; it's all about how you move...we know each really well [and] we're getting better and better," Dali told FPF.

The Aston Villa midfielder added more about her new role in the system.

"It's a new position for me. I'm a midfielder; I love to play number ten. I play number ten all [of my] seasons, but as long as I'm on the pitch, that's the most important. If I have to play centre-back, I would play centre-back," Dali said.

In France's post-match press conference, Diani was asked what they could improve for their quarterfinal against Australia. Her response focused more on the technical side of their game.

"Possession of the ball. In the end of the first half, we were in a little bit of a wrestle with them. I think that’s something we can improve," the striker said.

Renard echoed similar concerns, saying his side overplayed at times in the final third, and will need to be better in this area against Australia. On the flip side, be robust and compact on the defensive side of the ball.

"We’re not going to be giving them any space," Renard said in his post-match press conference.

As expected, the former Saudi Arabia men's coach claimed the set-up for the quarterfinal would be "completely different", given the improved quality of opposition and atmosphere in the stands. One of his remarks felt like a statement of intent.

"The objective now is to pull off the best performance the French team has ever done," Renard said.



The same might be said of Australia, who were immense against Canada and Denmark. But France now poses as the most complex tactical assignment requiring much preparation and focus.

Based on this analysis, Australia's sublime counterattacking football could be displayed again. However, unlike Denmark, France will not allow space between the lines to go unpunished. Australia gave Pernille Harder room to manoeuvre, but she had an off night at Stadium Australia. None of her Danish teammates was up to it either.

But in Le Sommer, Diani, Bacha, and Dali, France stumbled into a new potent attacking quartet that could give a likely back four of Carpenter, Kennedy, Hunt, and Catley some severe problems.

Individual matchups are crucial, but the tactical battle will be fascinating. How does Gustavsson limit the influence of a midfielder like Toletti? Will he have the defensive answers to all of France's attacking ploys? Can Australia afford to soak up pressure like they did against Canada and Denmark, given France's supreme possession game?

These are the conversations he and his technical staff are likely having. We will find out on Saturday whether their analysis leads them to concoct a plan worthy of taking down the world number five and securing passage to a historical, inspirational, and nation-unifying semifinal.

Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of the Matildas!


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