Since the start of World Cup Qualifications in September 2016, Iceland scored 16 goals from set pieces. That is 41% of all their goals. In defensive phase, they are hard working and compact using 4-4-2 defensive shape. On offense, they are extremely vertical, counter-attacking team.
Apart from Sigurdsson, Iceland lacks technical ability and the team plays to their other strengths. Physical strength, height, speed, teamwork and work rate. Due to lack of technical skills, Iceland is heavily oriented towards set pieces. Their long throw-ins and corner kicks have been extensively analysed. Goal kicks frequently pass under the radar as rarely they are treated as a possible threat to the opposition.
Iceland takes them seriously and looks to take the most out of them. Here’s a brief analysis of their direct play from the back.
The last of quarter finals at EURO brought us a true underdog Iceland against France which, in the end, showed England how it is done. A comfortable win for home nation, however, might be a tad bit deceiving. Unlike England, everything French did seem to work. They had three shots in first 20 minutes and scored twice. Summed up, It was a very harsh game for brave Iceland that kept plugging when most teams would have just waited for a million of grasshoppers to have invaded the pitch and eat all the grass so the match is abandoned.
Front page of L’equipe, famous French football magazine, published a title “Can we be as stupid as English?” before the match as a reminder to their team. They were under pressure but hadtadd bit more confidencee than their rivals over The Channel. Iceland, on the other hand, came on the pitch ready for another surprise.
Didier Deschamps was aware of quick counters down wings that Iceland loves, not as much for the possibility of cross (although, they would take that) but as an opportunity for Aron Gunnarsson’s throw ins. France wasn’t pressing high and both full backs, Patrice Evra and Bakary Sagna, were particularly careful during the opening minutes not to surge forward too much.
You can see above that Sagna had a tad bit more attacking role on the right in first half but generally both fullbacks, despite their attacking ability, played quite a conservative game. Their role, when France had the ball, was to widen the pitch and spread Iceland defence so offensive players Payet, Griezmann and Sissoko had more space. Only occasionally Sagna would cross from advanced positions (twice) while Evra was more concerned about passing the ball to advanced wide play maker Dmitri Payet or Blaise Matuidi.
Apart not overcommitting fullbacks when on the ball, France was obviously defending without it. Above you see they employed fairly high line at about 10 meters behind the half line. However, they didn’t press relentlessly at all even if Icelandic defenders aren’t exactly comfortable on the ball. Pressing the ball carrier would allow them to get the ball much higher but at risk of giving Iceland opportunity to slingshot long balls for their tall strikers up front and fast transition they are good at.
Instead, Deschamps opted much more patient and controlled approach, as with his full backs when on the ball, letting Iceland find their way through his defensive lines. You can see effect of that bellow. Not having particularly creative players in midfield Iceland had tough time arriving in the middle third and even tougher getting into attacking third. They were left with long balls onto set up French defence that marked their forwards.
Neutralizing counter attacks with conservative full backs and zonal defending without the ball to prevent confusion in defence were main aims for Deschamps ensuring Iceland is kept at bay. Going forward, however, France had to offer a lot. Basically they did what Belgium wanted to do whole tournament but were unable.
Deschamps played with two defensive midfielders, although Pogba was very keen to go forward, and Payet as a wide play maker on left. While Griezmann was allowed to move freely and Giroud often backtracked to make room for him and Sissoko cutting inside from right. These movements were often confusing for Iceland and created quite a few opportunities. Mainly due to Iceland defending.
Above you can see how high is the Iceland defensive line. They are tight and compact and that is all well and good. However, Arrigho Sacchi wouldn’t approve the behaviour of Forwards Bodvarsson and Sigthorsson. If you are playing high line as Iceland, even if it is as nice and compact as theirs, you leave a lot of space behind the defence, around 40 meters in this particular case. To make this effective your strikers can not simply look at the player with the ball, especially if it is Paul Pogba who has really good and precise long pass.
These passes repeated through the first half and created a goal and a few chances. Combined with cut ins from Payet and intelligent off ball movement from Griezmann and Giroud, these was the offensive plan from Deschamp to supply his strikers. It worked so well it was unfair to Iceland who failed to adapt their pressing game to disrupt it. However, goals came so fast and in quick succession that game was virtually taken away from the opposition team. Not for Iceland, mind you.
They had to be frustrated at half time and wanted to prove it was not what they are capable of. Laagerbaek Substituted Arnasson who had a torrid game with Ingasson and more mobile Finnbogasson came in for fairly static Bodvarsson. They also changed the formation when on the ball. Captain Gunnarsson dropped between two center backs while full backs went higher and Bjarnasson together with Gudmundsson went central to form 3-5-2 which often transformed into 3-4-3 as Bjarnasson and Gudmundsson surged forward in possession.
More offensive stance from the beginning of second half paid off after 10 minutes but French efficiency was really ruthless and Giroud scores yet again from another set piece. This didn’t dishearten Iceland as they continued with their approach looking for crosses and set pieces and they managed to score six minutes before the end.
France was largely content to preserve energy for semi final with Germany throughout the second half and wrapped the game looking for counter attacks. As Iceland was wide open at times they could have scored more.
To conclude, France had sound plan with direct balls for offensive players as well as quick combination play mainly down left where Dmitri Payet operated. Iceland helped them with inadequate closing down of ball carrier allowing time and space for French to pick their passes into attacking third. France got luck on their side as well since they scored two goals from their first three shots and then added another two goals from next three tries.
Strange game that didn’t give moment of breath to Iceland and might be quite deceiving for France going into the match with Germany.