Quarter-finals Day One
Uruguay 0-2 France
This was not going to be as potent a squad in attack for Uruguay without Edinson Cavani partnering up front with Luis Suarez in the box due to injury, so less reliable Christian Stuani came in to play just behind Suarez in a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation that played like a 4-4-2. But they did still have the best defense in the tournament with Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez at the heart of the four-man backline, Lucas Torreira providing them cover, and the thrust of their attack is to get the ball to Suarez as quickly as they can, getting help from flankers Matías Vecino and Nahitan Nández and trailing help from attacking midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur up the middle. France started out with a standard 4-2-3-1 formation that could morph into a 4-5-1, N’Golo Kanté the hard man in front of the four-man backline, with box-to-box center midfielder Paul Pogba winning the ball and introducing the attack, center midfielder Antoine Griezmann making attacking runs through the center, Olivier Girould the target man up top and speedy scorer Kilian Mbappé coming in from the right.
The key match-up was how Uruguayan left back Diego Laxalt handled Kilian Mbappé, and if Laxalt was going to make overlapping runs given the responsibilities he had in the back. Uruguay were going to challenge France high, not giving them a chance to build up that quick transition attack; they surrounded Pogba and made him work for every possession. Pressure from both sides defensively but choppy going forward; neither side was going to allow the other to build up a head of steam in attack, breaking up each other’s offensive rhythm and tempo. Godin is a dying breed, an old-fashioned defender, thinks nothing but defense, always organizing the backline, never comes up to attack.
The pace of the game favored Uruguay; France just couldn’t get into their fast buildup. Even when the ball made it into the box for France, there just wasn’t any panic in Uruguay’s game. On a 40th minute set piece, Griezmann stutter-stepped a free kick, freezing Uruguay and opening up Raphaël Varane to head one in, the only time Uruguay were 6’s and 7’s at any time in this tournament. Then Griezmann with a shot with some cheese on it that goalkeeper Fernando Muslera can’t handle and puts in his own goal in the 61st minute.
It changed everything for Uruguay, who up until then had controlled pace and tempo, but now they had to chase the game and put numbers forward, opening up all kinds of lanes for France to pass and run into in counter. But France started dropping players back into their own end in defense and maintain possession. Good effort by Uruguay, but they didn’t looked even close to getting on the scoreboard. I thought the best organized team in this tournament was Uruguay, but two fatal errors in the back did them in, plus without Cavani they weren’t able to play the way they wanted to play. Not the best from France, but they did enough to get through.
Brazil 1-2 Belgium
Quite a few changes for the Selacao in this one, going with a spread 3-4-3 formation, Marcelo on the left wing assisting talisman flanker Neymar, with Willian flanking in the box on the right. Cultured striker Gabriel Jesus in the box, but the important player trailing in through the center is Philippe Coutinho. A number of significant changes for the Belgians as well in a risky yet attacking 4-3-3 formation. Box-to-box midfielder Marouane Fallaini comes in to introduce the attack from the center as well as provide cover when Axel Witsel abandons the center. Talisman Eden Hazard providing service into the box, Kevin De Bruyne providing crosses from the right with Romelu Lukaku the sole target man up front looking to get on the end of service to either score or bring in trailing help.
A three-man backline and emphasis on service through the center meant that Nacer Chadli and Thomas Meunier had a lot of responsibilities on the sides. Belgium was most likely to sit back and counter, hoping that Lukaku would occupy center backs Mirando and Thiago Silva enough to bring in De Bruyne and Hazard. Both teams pressed high from the outset, looking to build from the back, although Belgium would have loved to have turned it into a track meet. Whether through a patient buildup or a quick strike, not much of this game was spent in the middle third.
Belgium looked to use their size advantage, and it paid off in the 13th minute on a set piece corner from Chadli to Vincent Kompany. A track meet is what Belgium were able to turn this into; a clinical attack by Lukaku through the middle brings in De Bruyne to hit a laser to the back post in the 31st minute. Same attack for Belgium coming out of halftime; interception by their defense deep, getting the ball to De Bruyne to find Lukaku cutting on the inside with an outlet pass on the break. Surprisingly Belgium did all of this without much help from Hazard.
Good combination play from Brazil the last 45 minutes, but they were getting interrupted in the final third and having to transition back quickly to thwart the Belgium counterattack. Roberto Firmino came in after the half and provided much better attacking on the right side, as well as switching play much more effectively. Renato Augusto was subbed into the game to make deep runs through the center of the defense into the box and get on the end of crosses; that’s exactly what happened in his goal in the 76th minute on an assist by Coutinho.
Long switches by Brazil from side to side were causing all kinds of problems for Belgium. In an attempt to hold on, Belgium brought on Youri Tielemans to clog up the middle and interrupt the Selacao attack. Belgiun head coach Roberto Martinez got his tactics right on the day, his big time players showed up big time and got it done.