This is an analysis made for and first published at outsideoftheboot.com
France won the EURO after all, and convincingly so, albeit it was U19 EURO. In a final match played against Italy on Sunday they completely outplayed Italian future stars winning four nil. Unlike main national team in recently finished EURO, France U19 demonstrated they knew what they wanted to do with and without the ball. “Under” tournaments are often a window into the future and France showed it has nothing to worry about in coming years. Players such as Jean-Kévin Augustin (PSG), Kylian Mbappe (Monaco), Ludovic Blas (Guingamp), Amine Harit (Nantes), Clément Michelin (Toulouse) are all the names you should expect in next two years to amass double figure transfer fees.
As their older counterparts, Italy did surprisingly well to reach the final beating England in semi final (fun fact, three own goals were scored in this tournament and England profited from all of them). They were underdogs but Italy didn’t go on the pitch at Rhein-Neckar-Arena in Sinsheim thinking about defence.
However, poorly judged pass to change the point of attack from left back Dimarco was intercepted outside French box and within five seconds ball found its way at feet of the best scorer of tournament Augustin who perfectly received it on the turn which allowed him to use his strength to get in between two center backs and proceed one on one with goalkeeper and score. A magnificent show of technique, strength and composure from PSG striker. There was little Italy could do once they were caught out of possession and out of shape.
Main idea of France was to stop build up play from Italy and they did it in quite an interesting way. While they were attacking in common 4-1-2-3 shape, they defended in 4-1-4-1 with defensive line set very high. However, with only one striker, Augustin, they didn’t press Italy. Instead, France tried to cover the space and block the passing lanes and did it perfectly.
As defensive line was very high, almost on the center line, Italy had very little space to operate. France compressed them in about 20-30 meters and covered all passing angles. This resulted in most of short passes being intercepted allowing skilful wingers Blas and Mbappe to show their one on one skills posing constant threat once Italy gave away the ball in middle third.
Above is the illustration of French defending although it is not taken in perfect t moment as France was usually a bit higher. However, even if France didn’t position themselves in perfect manner, you can see all the advanced passing lanes are closed or man marked and everything that is left for Italy are three options. A back pass to defenders, a long hopeful pass to forwards or a diagonal pass to change the flank and point of attack. When Italy chose the last option they conceded on counter attack. Hopeful pass to forwards resulted in easy swept balls by the defence… All in all exactly what France head coach Ludovic Batelli wanted.
Italy was allowed to play passes between their center backs but not to advance the ball in the middle third. Paolo Vanoli, the Italian on the bench of their U19 team wanted to create numerical advantage in the middle with quite a strange move. In possession, Italy often transformed from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 since potent Inter left back Federico Dimarco was surging forward to play as a winger while left winger, Alberto Picchi would go forward, while Fiorentina striker Simone Minelli would drop deep to create a spare man in middle of the field.
However, as you can see in above image, this didn’t really work. Even when Italy managed to enter the middle third without losing the ball they were covered and change of formation didn’t fool French defence. Intelligent positioning of defensive midfielder and France captain, Tousard prevented Minelli from being a threat and receiving the ball while concentration from right full back Michelin meant Dimarco was well tracked and Picchi was picked up by center back Onguene rendering all Italian moves futile.
Since all lines towards French goal were closed Italy relied on long passes from center backs to forwards or cross field balls from one wing to another. Neither were particularly successful and allowed time for France to shift the defence. Effectiveness of French defence is proved by fact that goalkeeper was forced to first save late in 80th minute.
While Italy had a plan to break France that clearly didn’t work. France, however, didn’t rely only on counter attacks, although Italy gave them plenty of opportunities since their passing was horrible due to French great defensive shape.
Beside counter attacks France often tried to overload one flank and then dispatch the ball to the opposite. While themselves had little trouble with similar tactic employed by Italy, their opponents struggled heavily. Main difference was that Italy didn’t play with defensive midfielder and defended in 4-4-2 shape. Lack of 5th man in midfield showed throughout the match since France was often changing sides unbalancing the Italian defence.
Before the half time France scored once more as right back Michelin entered space vacated by right winger Blasi who eventually headed the Michelin’s cross from point blank range. Apart from Italy trying to press higher in the early minutes of second period, the game didn’t change at all since teams came on the pitch after the half time.
Playing 4-3-3 in possession, France had a numerical advantage in the central area and main problem for Italy was lack of defensive work from their forwards who didn’t drop back to support their midfield when France was on the ball.
As you can see above, this meant France always had a passing options in central area. Furthermore, as they played only four in midfield when defending, marauding French full backs were able to stretch thin defence even further while, at the same time, allowing their wingers to occupy more central positions and give more work to Italian defence.
By the end of the match France scored two more goals and Italy never looked like being in the match.
To conclude, main goals of France were to obstruct Italian transition into middle third which they did with high defensive line and disciplined, packed, midfield congesting Italy in 25 to 30 meters of space. From there on they would pick up the loose balls and counter. On offence, France showed disadvantages 4-4-2 formation when defending against 4-3-3. Since Italy failed to respond and drop one striker deeper to help the midfield, France had all the options in central areas as well as wide since their full backs stretched the defence allowing quick changes of point of attack which four man didn’t manage to contain whole game. Although France is better team, feeling remains that Italy didn’t prepare well for what is coming to them.