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The tactical dilemmas Argentina will face against France

These are the last two days without footballing action we have at the 2022 World Cup, but we’ll be putting them to good use by looking ahead to the big one.

In today’s edition of our Doha Diaries column, we’ll be looking at the tactical battles that could decide the final, and tomorrow, we will focus on some key players.

From a tactical point of view, we could be in for an exciting final. Argentina and France have shown some evident strengths and weaknesses in the tournament, and there appears to be some overlap between them.

France’s approach and counter-attacking threat

We have previously discussed how France operate in possession with a five-man front line, but in this game, their defensive tactics could be more relevant.

They have kept less possession than their opponents in the last two matches (43% against England and 39% against Morocco), so they have had to do a fair bit of defending.

Out of possession, France do not tend to press opponents high up the pitch and instead drop into a mid-block, which often sinks into a low block as the ball enters their own half. In the semi-final, they spent 58% of their time out of possession in these two defensive situations.

(Image credit: FIFA)

This certainly was something they did by design. In both of those games, Les Blues took a relatively early lead, so they did not need to chase a goal as much as their opponents.

By dropping back out of possession, they invited the opposition to come forward and attack with greater numbers, consequently increasing the potential threat they could pose on counterattacks.

Of course, France are one of the most dangerous teams in transition. Besides a certain Kylian Mbappé, Olivier Giroud is also quite handy in such situations thanks to his hold-up play and off-ball movement, Ousmane Dembélé’s dribbling can prove quite handy, as can Antoine Griezmann’s passing.

Their second goal against Poland in the round of 16 summed up what they can do to teams on the counter, so this is something Argentina will have to be wary of.

Argentina’s defensive questions

It should be mentioned that Argentina have largely been solid defensively throughout the tournament. Based on xG conceded per 90, no other nation has a better record than their tally of 0.38 in Qatar. By contrast, France have a tally of 1.12 in this metric.

That being said, it should be noted that Argentina’s defence has not always been tested to a great extent. Saudi Arabia did shock them in the opening game, but after that, both Mexico and Poland adopted very conservative approaches in their group matches.

In the knockout stage, Argentina started well against Australia and the Netherlands but looked quite shaky towards the end of their matches when facing sustained pressure.

Undoubtedly, their win over Croatia was their most impressive performance, but the game state was a significant factor. The point is, Argentina’s underlying defensive numbers might look good, but they have not seemed so solid when tested to their limits, which France are sure to do.

Their threat in transition could prove especially dangerous against Argentina. In such situations, defenders who are strong in individual battles and one-on-ones are the need of the hour, but La Albiceleste’s back line does not greatly inspire confidence in this context. Picture Mbappé running at Nahuel Molina on the counter and Argentina fans’ worst fears could easily be realised.

As we previously alluded to, France’s counter-attacking potential only increases when they have a lead, so conceding first is the worst thing Argentina can do.

Of course, this is a very obvious thing to say, but the point is that the defending champions have a better chance of coming back from a deficit than Argentina.

Potential systems/formations for Argentina

Equally obviously, it would be pretty handy for them if Argentina scored first, so let us explore a couple of options they have for their system in possession.

Lionel Scaloni has been tweaking things from game to game based on his side’s opponents, and for the most part, his changes have worked quite well.

So firstly, he must identify the areas where the French defence could be targeted. Morocco made a lot of headway down the French left (53% of their attacks came from that direction), and the reason behind that is simple.

Out of possession, the left winger Mbappé stays in the front line of France’s 4-4-2 shape, so Griezmann drops into the right of midfield and the two central midfielders shift across to the left.

Unsurprisingly, they cannot defend the flank as well as a defensive-minded left winger would, so this is something Argentina could look to exploit.

To do so, they would likely have to start Ángel Di María as a touchline right winger and then support him with an overlapping full-back, a midfielder drifting wide or Lionel Messi moving out to the right to link up with him.

The alternative would be to target France in central midfield, where they only have two players. Argentina did this successfully against the three-player midfield of Croatia, starting four central midfielders in a flat 4-4-2 formation out of possession, but it looked more like a diamond in possession as their pass-map shows.

Of course, Argentina’s choice of their system in possession will have an impact on how they defend too. The advantage of using a 4-4-2 would be that the wide midfielders could help double up on the French wingers or on the right wing at least, track the overlapping full-back, but the downside would be that Griezmann dropping deep could overload the central midfield area.

On the flip side, a 4-3-1-2 (which is likely the formation needed to accommodate Di María) would solidify the central midfield area but would require the Juventus playmaker to put in a real defensive shift and follow Theo Hernández’s advances lest Argentina’s back-four gets overloaded on their right.

Scaloni could also make a left-field decision and switch to a 3-5-2 as he did against the Netherlands. Defensively, this would counter both of the aforementioned issues on paper, but the main trade-off here would be that Argentina might not be able to pose as much of a threat in possession.

Clearly, there are a lot of decisions that Scaloni and his coaching staff have to make ahead of the final. Tactically, we can be pretty confident of knowing what France are going to come up with, so the ball is in Argentina’s court.

Even if they miss initially, they will obviously have the chance to rectify any issues mid-game, so it will be worth keeping an eye on this intriguing battle throughout the match.

Stats courtesy Opta via FotMob, Fbref and WhoScored, FIFA, and Vizz App.

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