A closely contested match with few opportunities in the first half, pace and chances increased in the second. France’s strategy was to sit back, absorb Belgium pressure and hit on the break using Kylian Mbappe’s pace. Not surprising, given France coach Didier Deschamps is conservative.
1. Tactical decisions:
(A) France – Opted to go with the tried and tested in their 4-5-1 formation, welcoming back from suspension, midfielder Blaise Matuidi.
(B) Belgium- Set up in their 3-5-2 formation. But this time moved Kevin De Bruyne from a central attacking role, to the right flank deploying Maraoune Fellaini in that more advanced role. This is where I believe Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, got it wrong. De Bruyne’s best position is in that central attacking area. Fellaini is neither a defensive nor an attacking midfielder, or an out and out striker. Deploying De Bruyne on the right flank put him in the sights of the defensively sound Matuidi.
2. Game Management: There’s a feeling France haven’t reached top gear yet, probably held back by conservative tactics. But their game intelligence dealing with Belgium’s attacks, was excellent. After Belgium had gone 1-0 behind, Martinez brought on Dries Mertens for Mousa Dembele. The strategy for Belgium was, to go wide and send lots of crosses especially from Mertens. But France’s defence, marshalled by Rafael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, were excellent in dealing with this. And kept Belgium striker, Romelu Lukaku, quiet.
3. Set plays: Yet another set piece, and yet another headed goal. This old fashioned aspect of football is proving vital at in Russia. Umtiti’s winner, was the 6th headed goal in the knockout stages.
4. A bridge too far: Belgium rode their luck in recovering from 2-0 to beat Japan 3-2 in the last 16. And in surviving a barrage of second half attacks from Brazil to hold on for a 2-1 win in the quarterfinals. But when they faced France, organised in midfield and defense, it proved a bridge too far.
*The writer is a three-time winner of the Ugandan League with SC Villa and played in two continental finals (1991 & 1992)