World Cup 2018: What to expect from the France-Belgium clash
Many are referring the first semifinal match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup as "the match" of this tournament. Definitely, there are reasons to get excited with the upcoming battle as this promises to be a thrilling encounter between third-ranked Belgium and seventh-ranked France.
Both countries have reached this stage of the World Cup unbeaten with convincing displays of attacking football. Both have the quality players who can excel on the day to define the winning moments of the match. Based on the strengths and weaknesses of the teams, this match surely will live up to the expectations of the football fans across the world.
Analyzing Belgium's squad
The biggest strength of the Belgium team lies with their midfield and the attacking flavours they offer. Because of their midfield quality, they often start matches with the 3-4-3 formation which can be switched to 4-3-3 as the situation demands. It's the versatility of players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel which allows them to not only defend high but also allows switching over to attack at a high pace.
In the striking area, you have the big presence of Romelu Lukaku. He not only has the qualities of a classic striker but also has great physical presence both on the ground as well as for aerial balls. He is ably supported by Eden Hazard, who can switch very easily from an attacking midfielder to an able false-9.
So far, Belgium have scored 14 goals in this competition. Though Lukaku is the highest scorer with 4 goals and Hazard has 2, the best part is that seven other players have scored goals as well. So, the striking ability is not restricted to just one or two players but is present pretty much across the board.
If we see the attack pattern of Belgium, most of their attacks come from the flanks. Statistics show that 36% attacks happen from the left, 38% from the right and 26% from the middle. This is a very even attack pattern which shows their versatility in their midfield strength.
If we have to find a relatively weak area of Belgium, it probably is their defence. However, they have a world-class goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois, who we all remember played exceptionally well against Brazil to ensure they win by 2-1.
So far, Belgium have conceded 5 goals so far out of which 2 were against Tunisia in a group match, where Belgium were probably relaxed after leading 5-1 at the end of 90 minutes. In their match against Brazil, many-a-times their defence was stretched against fast attacks, which highlighted the weakness of the team
Analyzing France's squad
Similar to Belgium, the French team excels in their midfield. While they play players such as Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante as withdrawn halves who can also block high in the field, their attack is led by Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe. France normally plays with a 4-2-3-1 formation with great overlaps by Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez from the back.
The attacks pattern for France is also quite similar to that of Belgium. While 42% of their attacks come through their right, 38% happens through the left and 20% through the middle. 47% of their activities happen in the middle third as compared to 46% for Belgium. This again illustrates both teams trying to control the match in their midfield.
The defence of the French team probably is more stable and consistent than that of Belgium. This is not only because of them starting with 4 defenders, but the quality in Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti is great for any team. Pavard has been exceptional in the right-back position with speedy overlaps to increase more numbers during attack. No wonder, their most attacks have happened only through the right.
The weak area of France lies probably in not having a bulky striker up front. While they have good physical and aerial presence through Giroud in the final third, he has not been that effective as a striker and is yet to score in this World Cup. So far, France have scored 9 goals in the tournament out of which they have scored 6 goals through Griezmann and Mbappe. It remains to be seen whether Giroud can rise up to the occasion and score goals in matches which matters most.
How can we expect the match to be played?
This will be a match of equals, who play in similar styles and strategies. Both teams will try to control the midfield and we should expect the battle to happen mainly in the middle of the pitch.
Keeping possession will be an important aspect that both teams will fight for. However, converting that possession into quick attacks through the flanks will be the key success factor.
Belgium will be more threatening in the final third with Lukaku disturbing the French defence with his physical presence. If De Bruyne plays as an attacker, there will be enough pressure created by the trio of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard, which the French defence might feel hard to defend.
For France, one of the key factors will be their pace of attack through Mbappe. He will be likely to be marked and not allowed any space to start his runs. However, this will be an interesting battle and if Mbappe can break his marker, he is likely to create enough trouble in the Belgian defence which can be capitalized by Giroud or Griezmann
Belgium have scored 50% of their goals through open play and 21% through counter attacks. On the other hand, France have scored 56% of their goals through open play and nothing so far through counter attacks. Both have scored almost similar numbers through set pieces. Hence, the lookout will be through effective and fast counter-attacks in this match.
Comparing the two teams, their style of play and their performance so far, it is very difficult to predict the match, given that this will be a true battle of equals. However, since Belgium has more superiority in the final third, I would predict that Belgium has a slight edge over France.
But as they say, football is played on the pitch and not on paper - so I will not be surprised if I am proven wrong. However, one thing is for certain - this has the potential to be a classic amongst all classics and may the best team win!
Who do you think will win this game? Tell us in the comments below!