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France vs. Croatia presents scrumptious tactical World Cup chess match

NBC Sports logo NBC Sports 7/13/2018 Kyle Bonn

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The World Cup final is nearly here, and with that, a look at the tactical proficiencies of each side is at hand.

France has done just enough to sneak by every opponent thus far, earning all but one of their five wins to this point by one goal. However, they come into the final against Croatia as heavy favorites thanks to a star-studded lineup that has performed on multiple levels thus far in Russia.

Didier Deschamps has to this point stuck with a standard 4-5-1 formation that allows the team to stay compact defensively,  control the midfield and pick chances up front. Kylian Mbappe has been given the flexibility to take players on down the right and find teammates in the middle. Against Belgium, France was comfortable to concede 64% possession to the opponents and allow Mbappe to create chances for the other attackers.

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This presents a different challenge for Croatian boss Zlatko Dalic than he faced against England, when Croatia stretched Gareth Southgate‘s midfield with quality full-back play. That won’t work as well against the 4-3-3, meaning Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic will have to stay home. It will be interesting to see if Deschamps continues to deploy Blaise Matuidi on the right to defend Ante Rebic and look to pummel Vrsaljko, or if he will change things up and bring on Ousmane Dembele to pin Vrsaljko back with his pace and technical abilities. Matuidi appeared to suffer a significant head injury in the semifinal against Belgium, but reports say he is still in contention to play on Sunday.

France’s unbalanced setup with Matuidi on one side and Mbappe on the other has done the job so far, but it has presented some problems as well. For one, it has exposed right-back Benjamin Pavard at times, who has held his own for the most part but occasionally looked overwhelmed. In addition, on the other side of the back line, Lucas Hernandez has been sensational defending the left, but his attacking presence is minimal, and aside from a quality cross or two, his defensive mindset along with Matuidi’s lumbering style leaves France incredible lopsided. That means Vrsaljko and Rebic could potentially see a lot of the ball again, stretching France’s midfield the same way it did England’s.

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Another problem for France could be that Antoine Griezmann hasn’t looked entirely comfortable sitting behind Olivier Giroud, and has performed in spots this World Cup, with two of his three goals this tournament coming from the penalty spot.

However, all problems are minimized when a team has N'Golo Kante marauding through the middle of the pitch. Kante’s presence gives France a huge leg up on shutting down Croatia’s strongest midfield duo of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. The latter especially has starred under the bright Russian lights this summer, and has especially roared loudest in the second half of matches when given more freedom to push forward. Modric has shown a desire to get forward and make a difference, unless he’s tasked with marshalling the midfield with Rakitic. For the most part, the presence of defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic has had a notable impact on Modric’s proficiency pushing forward on the ball. In the 90 minutes or so Brozovic has been on the bench – the first hour of the group opener against Nigeria and the first half of their quarterfinal matchup against Russia – Modric was noticeably hesitant moving into attacking positions. Expect Brozovic to start so Croatia can hope to match the French midfield wall of Kante and Paul Pogba, leaving Modric and Rakitic to try and stretch Kante into double duty.

The final key tactical battle will be in the French penalty area. It pits poacher extraordinaire Mario Mandzukic against aerially sound defenders Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane. In the semifinal, Belgium pummeled the French penalty area with a whopping 26 crosses, only five of which met its mark – four of which came either at or outside the penalty spot. Croatia’s approach against England was similar, subjecting the Three Lions defense to the soccer equivalent of an artillery bombardment, attempting 40 crosses in their semifinal meeting. Only three of those were successful, but one assisted Ivan Perisic’s 60th minute equalizer.

All eyes will be on N’Golo Kante in his high-profile midfield battle against Modric and Perisic, but there is plenty more for Didier Deschamps to contend with. France will have its hands full with deserving finalists Croatia, and the chess match that will ensue in Moscow on Sunday will be nothing short of fascinating.

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