Football reporting is often oriented around crafting narratives. Whether you’re an anchor, analyst, sideline reporter, or fan blogger, there is an incredible temptation to frame the sport in a binary fashion; good vs. evil, light vs. dark, aesthetic vs. unaesthetic, progressive vs. regressive, etc. While this can make for a more entertaining read for fans, football is rarely that simple, unless, of course, we’re talking about the first half of the Netherlands-France UEFA Nations League game.
The first forty-five minutes of the encounter between the two teams was the most stereotypical “possession vs. counter-attack” match-up one could’ve witnessed. Aside from a solid five minutes around the half hour mark, the Netherlands held onto the ball for the entire half, patiently waiting for their opening against an attacking trio primed to burst forward on the break.
Patient Netherlands Exploit France’s Defensive Weaknesses
Manager Ronald Koeman achieved such dominance over the ball by selecting Matthijs de Light, Virgil van Dijk, and the uber-talented Frenkie de Jong to be the base for the Netherland’s possession play. The trio, along with some able help from Marten de Roon, were extremely patient in possession and dictated the tempo of the game against France’s 4-1-4-1 medium block.
Deschamps, looking for even more defensive security than he usually does, placed Steven Nznoni in between N’Golo Kanté and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. The Netherlands sought to attack this packed formation by calmly waiting to exploit Mbappe’s lax defensive positioning and by trying to coax a central midfielder out to press.
Mbappe, who was defensively weak even in the World Cup, continually strayed out of the midfield line, leaving right back Denzel Dumfries free. After patient ball circulation and some dribbling movements by de Jong and de Roon, Matuidi would step up with Giroud to press the Netherland’s double-pivot. This allowed for a quick pass into the right half space (usually to the impressive Steven Bergwijn), before a wall pass was played to the open Dumfries.
The Netherlands were also able to repeat the same pattern on their left flank, though to a lesser degree thanks to Griezmann’s more astute defensive discipline.
Georginio Wijnaldum and Depay added variation to this scheme by constantly providing additional options between the lines or by making runs off-the-shoulder of the defender to stretch France’s compactness and create space for Bergwijn and Babel to receive in the half spaces.
Once in the final third, the Netherlands sped things up drastically and attacked France’s back-line with pace. Dumfries often looked to cross quickly, while the Netherland’s front four made aggressive runs into the box, dribbled at defenders, and tried to combine with one another.
The Netherlands only created a moderate number of progressions and chances in the first half, but their cautious approach limited France to scraps. Aside from an early van Dijk mistake, Mbappe had little to no joy running at defenders and France got their only opportunities from two set-pieces.
The game seemed destined for a 0-0 draw or a 1-0 win until the Netherland’s intelligent approach was aided by some luck. Unsurprisingly, this all began thanks to Mbappe’s defensive laxness. Dumfries received the ball and powered a cross into the box that everyone missed. The Netherlands picked up possession on the left flank and had another go. Nzonzi, who could’ve left the cross for Raphael Varane, attempted a weak header that flicked the ball into the danger area. Hugo Lloris made the initial save but was helpless as Wijnaldum tapped home the rebound in the 44th minute.
France Attempt A Failed Comeback
Didier Deschamps tried to put France on the front foot by ordering a high press in the second half. It was a decent idea, as it could’ve theoretically given France more of the ball and could’ve created opportunities in transition for Mbappe, but the execution was terrible. There was zero clarity as to who was supposed to lead the press and no one in the front line seemed truly committed to the effort.
As a result, the Netherlands found it rather easy to break through the high pressure. They either entered the opposition half through short combinations or via long balls into the big space between the midfield and defensive lines, where Depay and co. controlled, turned, and attacked the back four.
The end-to-end atmosphere looked like it spelled doom for France, and Deschamps reacted by bringing on players who would thrive in the more chaotic environment - Moussa Sissoko and Ousmane Dembélé for Matuidi and Olivier Giroud, respectively, and later Tanguy Ndombele for Nzonzi.
The changes were accompanied by renewed energy, which gave France more half opportunities. Though the press remained poor, France’s back-line won a few more fifty-fifty duels in order to provide their side with more time in the opposition half. They made use of it by relying on dribbling movements from Kanté — who did this rather well — and Sissoko; the latter of which also helped by making very direct runs into the channel.
However, this was not enough to overcome France’s clear lack of collective mechanisms in possession. Aside from a couple of minor scares, the Dutch’s back-line held firm and their attackers eventually began to rove forward on the counter-attack in numbers.
The Netherlands eventually got their second goal in the 95th minute, after the ever-present Frenkie de Jong drew a foul in the penalty box. Depay stepped up and coolly fired a panenka past the keeper to seal the result.
No one aside from Hugo Lloris (and maybe Kanté) truly played all that well, and Varane was no exception. Though he was okay in the first half and didn’t make many mistakes, he gave away possession cheaply in the second half on at least one occasion and lost too many duels against Netherland’s attackers. He was by no means France’s worst performer on the day, but it wasn’t exactly the greatest return from injury either.