- Roberto Martinez hired Thierry Henry as his assistant manager to help break down Belgium’s “mental barriers” in order to have a successful World Cup. Martinez was describing the pressures of living up to the expectations of a Golden Generation. Henry’s stature on the sideline began to rise after his side’s comeback against Japan in the round of 16, and especially after holding onto a late lead against Brazil in the quarters.
- Despite his name and his accomplishments, Henry had a difficult time breaking into the management world partly due to his no holds barred critiques as a television analyst. As Graham Hunter recently pointed out, Henry’s criticism of Arsenal lacking a spine led to a divide between him and Arsene Wenger, with Wenger returning the favor by doing the bare minimum to help Henry in his coaching development.
- What exactly has Henry accomplished with Belgium? Romelu Lukaku, for one, credits Henry for raising his game “twice as much” as he could imagine. Lukaku is working with Henry to score goals out of nowhere, the skill which separates the top strikers.
- Martinez called Henry the missing ingredient to his Belgium side, admitting that while he brought the technical expertise, it would be Henry who brought the “know-how” of both winning a World Cup and living up to the pressure of playing in front of one’s home country. Yet considering where he started, Martinez has helped Henry’s reputation in management as much as Henry has helped Martinez find Belgium’s extra gear.
- As much as Henry and Kylian Mbappe are linked together by 1998, France manager Didier Deschamps was the “water-carrier” of that World Cup winning side.
- Similar to Martinez, Deschamps was met with skepticism due to a tidy, safety first tactical approach that fits in line with his reputation as a player.
- While Belgium played a 3-4-3 formation against lesser sides, they should opt for the stability of a four defender backline against Brazil with Fellaini at the base and de Bruyne free to role. Thomas Meunier’s suspension for yellow cards is significant for a side short on wingbacks already. The move to a 3-5-2 with Nacer Chadli and Mousa Dembele in the starting lineup feels like Martinez is over-tinkering, but he’s earned that right this tournament.
- Chadli’s positioning on the right showcases his versatility. Swapping Dembele at the expense of Dries Mertens reinforces midfield solidity alongside Witsel and Fellaini and displays the side’s versatility. Although Dembele does best in a midfield two, when allowed space on the ball.
- Deschamp had to decide between Corentin Tolisso and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. Although with this discipline and experience, Matuidi will always be more trusted in a big match
- The beginning of the match is unfolding as expected, with Belgium in possession and France looking to hit counter attacks through Mbappe.
- Olivier Giroud has comical moments in front of goal and will never be thought of as a great striker, but his workrate, hold up play and tracking back symbolizes how well the pieces on this French side fit together.
- Paul Pogba’s signature this tournament has been in receiving the ball deep is his own half, eluding an opposition press, and hitting the decisive ball in transition to either Antoine Griezmann or Mbappe.
- New World Cup rule: Hugo Lloris will make one world class save every match.
- While Mbappe threatened twice in the first half off counters, he’s most impressively showcasing a playmaking ability against a set backline. He’s frequently going 1 on 3 against Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel or Dembele, and de Bruyne whenever he receives the ball inside France’s attacking third. He is 19 years old.
- We’ve discussed set pieces throughout the tournament, and it’s only right that Samuel Umtiti strike out of nowhere. He and Yerry Mina will be a handful off set pieces next season
- There seems to be a moment in every knockout match thus far where we ask the question “What will Martinez do now?”
- This Mbappe backheel may be the skill of the tournament.
- In regards to the previous question, Martinez subbed on Mertens for Dembele as Belgium opts for pace and width in trying to get their goal back. Mertens’ impact is immediate.
- And in going back to the theme of all the pieces of France’s lineup just making sense and fitting together, Pogba’s defensive work on the ground and in air have been essential as Belgium resort to desperate crosses. That same sentence could be written about Giroud and Matuidi as well. That France has that sort of defensive quality and workrate from their midfield and attack makes their back four exceptionally difficult to break down. That’s without mentioning Kante shielding passing lanes, Lloris’ shot stopping, nor their lightning quick counter attack.
- In keeping a clean sheet and with a symbolic 1-0 win, the match showcased France’s defensive discipline as opposed to Belgium struggling in attack. With Belgium’s top five passers either on the backline or deep in midfield, they failed to find any penetration amongst the French midfield. De Bruyne completed just 38 out of 52 passes.
- Martinez could only rue “the small margins” between two organized international sides filled with the quality that cancels itself out with individual matchups across the field. By the momentum of the tournament, set pieces will also decide tomorrow’s semifinals between Croatia and England and the finals itself.
- With a signature match against Argentina and in carrying France’s counter attack against Belgium, Mbappe is the most dangerous winger in the 2018 World Cup. It’s not just his pace, but his control, skill and creating in tight spaces, all while still a teenager on the world’s biggest stage.
A World Cup Abstract: France 1, Belgium 0