And then there were four…
France 1-0 Belgium
France played their standard, fluid 4-2-3-1 that played like a 4-5-1 in attack, with N’Golo Kante the best defensive midfielder in the tournament protecting the center of defense. The key to this game was box-to-box midfielder Paul Pogba having the space to create going forward, speedy winger Kilian Mbappe’ having room to make his runs from the right, and Olivier Giroud holding up play in the box as the target man giving time for attacking midfielder Antoine Greizmann to help him in front of goal.
Belgium were taking a risk with just a three-man backline with a 3-5-2 formation with no natural fullbacks and no wingbacks against this fast an opponent. That they played box-to-box midfielder Marouane Fellaini instead of Driers Mertens meant that the Belgians were going to try and close down the middle of the field to France’s Pogba, with Axel Witsel was the protection in front of the backline. The crux of the Belgian attack is get the ball long to target man Romelu Lukaku up top, let him bring in talisman Eden Hazard who is in the box with him, and get support from flankers Nacer Chadli and Kevin De Bruyne.
From the outset, Belgium switched to a four-man backline when not in possession, with Mousa Dembele dropping back deep. But as soon as they got possession they immediately switched to their wide 3-5-2. Chadli found space to operate on the right, frequently getting the ball into the final third. Surprising how possession-minded Belgium was, after a good spell, then letting France settle in defense. Belgium’s best chances early were when Hazard got the ball in the final third, so France needed to limit his space. Fallaini’s big body was causing a lot of problems in the box. Giroud actually got on the end of a lot balls in the box, but he was just an inch or two short of putting a quality chance on goal.
Belgium wasn’t getting anywhere in attack through the center; France’s Kante did a good job of cutting off their buildup in the middle. Neither team was able to get their counter going as both teams did a good job of transitioning and organizing in the back once they lost possession. Didn’t hear much from Lukaku in the first half; France central defenders Samuel Umtiti and Raphaël Varane closed him down effectively. As has become common in this World Cup, a set piece opens the scoring in this game; Umtiti with a header in the 51st minute. Trying to get Hazard the ball, Belgium started sending Fellaini out to wide spots hoping to open up space for Hazard in the center. Bringing on Mertens meant that Belgium were going to try and turn this into a track meet, getting into a forward position on the right side putting cross after cross into the box while still keeping Fellaini in midfield. Belgium with all kinds of chances to score but just couldn’t get on the end of good shots.
Was this Belgium’s last best chance to win this tournament?