With the whole of England focussing on the nation’s biggest game in decades on Wednesday night, it is easy to forget that there is the small matter of France vs Belgium in the first World Cup semi-final on Tuesday evening. Les Bleus produced three underwhelming performances in the group stages, as they topped Group C ahead of Denmark, Peru and Australia. Since then, however, they impressed in their comeback victory over Argentina in the last 16 before clinically knocking out Uruguay in the quarter-finals. Belgium, on the other hand, have been the most consistent side in Russia – winning all of their five matches. Roberto Martinez’s men were superb as they disposed of Brazil in the last round. Two excellent teams with a bottomless pool of attacking talent should provide another high-octane match in what has been an excellent World Cup so far.
Under Didier Deschamps, France have mostly operated under a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation, with their attacking full-backs utilising the space out wide by making overlapping runs from deep. Meanwhile, Belgium’s formation has been slightly more flexible. After deploying a 3-4-2-1 formation in their first four matches, Martinez altered the layout of his team in their game against Brazil. The Red Devils slipped into a 4-3-3 formation whilst defending, which moved into a 4-3-3 whilst in possession. Kevin de Bruyne had been playing from a deep midfield position in previous matches, but he played as a false no. 9 against Brazil, flanked by Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. He starred in his far more influential role, scoring what turned out to be the winning goal in their 2-1 victory. Martinez’s tactical masterstroke was used to take advantage of Marcelo’s laziness at the back. However, France’s Lucas Hernandez does not possess the same attacking mindset as Marcelo, so it remains to be seen whether Lukaku will find himself on the right flank, or in his more natural position through the middle. It is this tactical fluidity that makes Belgium such a hard team to play against.
Both sides have their talismans. This World Cup has arguably catapulted Romelu Lukaku from a top-drawer Premier League striker into the much debated ‘world class’ bracket. Contributing four goals to Belgium’s cause, the Manchester United man’s pace and power has never been in doubt. Perhaps it is due to working with Thierry Henry (Belgium’s assistant coach), but he seems to be playing with greater awareness at this tournament. His link-up play with Hazard, de Bruyne and Dries Mertens has been, at times, electrifying. Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti sit at the heart of France’s defence and have both had excellent seasons for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, but Lukaku has the physical edge over both of them, and could exploit either of them in one-on-one situations.
Ever since Kylian Mbappe made his move to PSG last summer, his future superstar status was all but confirmed. Nevertheless, few would have expected the youngster, still only 19 years of age, to have made such a huge impact on football’s biggest stage. Netting three goals so far, Mbappe was unstoppable in France’s 4-3 win over Argentina in the last 16. Once the teenager gets into full flight with the ball at his feet, there are few people in the world that can stop him. Belgium have uncertainties on the left-hand side of their defence too. Yannick Carrasco had previously played as their left wing-back earlier on in the tournament, but Jan Vertonghen moved to left-back in the previous round. Neither are naturals in these positions, and Mbappe, coupled with his partner in crime, France’s attacking right-back, Benjamin Pavard, will sense this as the chink in Belgium’s defensive armour. Few would have expected Antoine Griezmann to have been overshadowed by Mbappe in this World Cup, but the PSG winger will write his name into the history books if can lead Les Bleus to the final.
Two of the perhaps more underrated players that will likely carry a great deal of influence on the outcome of the game are the often maligned Marouane Fellaini and Olivier Giroud. Fellaini was outstanding as he snuffed out Brazil’s midfield in the quarters. When he pushes up the pitch, he looks to man-mark the opposition’s holding midfielder, in this case, N’Golo Kante. If he can limit Kante’s passing range and movement from deep, France will not be able to enjoy the time and space that the likes of Mbappe and Pogba thrive off. Fellaini can also make himself available as a long-ball option for Belgium’s defence thanks to his outstanding aerial ability, relieving the Red Devils from the French offensive press.
Giroud has not had a major impact so far for France, and Deschamps will be expecting more from the Chelsea forward in the semi-final. However, he has fared slightly better in the knockout stages thanks to his clever link-up play. Giroud has an uncanny knack of winning free-kicks and his ability to draw defenders towards him will allow Mbappe and Griezmann to exploit the space left by his intelligent movement off the ball.
These are two sides with much vaunted arrays of attacking options. However, both have showed signs of defensive frailty, and it is the side that is the more ruthless in exploiting these vulnerabilities that will become a World Cup finalist.