France exploit space behind Switzerland fullbacks

France cruised to a 5-2 win over Switzerland in Group E with one of the outstanding attacking performances of the tournament thus far. This contest had one of the most obvious tactical features we've seen in Brazil: France left their wide forwards high up the pitch when Switzerland were in possession and then broke quickly down the channels in the space behind the French fullbacks.

France stuck with their usual 4-3-3 formation but made two personnel changes to the side that beat Honduras in their opener. Olivier Giroud came in at striker while Karim Benzema shifted to left forward in place of Antoine Griezmann who struggled to have a big influence against Honduras. Moussa Sissoko replaced Paul Pogba on the right side of France's center midfield three.


In the opening 15 minutes France were forced to patiently rotate the ball around the back four. Switzerland defended in blocks of four and left Haris Seferovic and Granit Xhaka forward. The two shared defensive responsibility denying entry passes into France's deep lying playmaker Johan Cabaye and allowed center backs Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho to play square passes to each other. Higher up the pitch Gokhan Inler matched up Sissoko and Valon Behrami marked Blaise Matuidi. With the numbers evenly matched throughout the pitch France struggled to find space to play penetrating passes in the opening proceedings.

The opener came when Valbuena pressed Ricardo Rodriguez, blocking a pass that fell to Giroud on the right flank. Giroud's ball across the face of goal forced a last ditch tackle, earning France a corner that Giroud rose well to head in. Just a minute later France added a second when Behrami inexcusably played a back pass into the feet of Benzema. The Real Madrid striker put Matuidi through on goal and he finished at the front post.

At 2-0 down Switzerland had to chase the game and at this point we saw the games defining tactical feature. France defended with only their midfield three, leaving Benzema, Valbuena and Giroud in the attacking half. This meant that Switzerland's fullbacks were unmarked when they made forays forward. Matuidi and Sissoko would shuttle into wide areas to pick up the two Switzerland fullbacks when they got on the ball. Switzerland could have caused some damage if they could have quickly switched the point of attack to the opposite side fullback who was consistently in acres of space. At one point towards the end of the first half Swtizerland had moved the ball from the left to Xhaka in the center of the pitch 25 yards from goal. France's defense didn't have time to rotate and Xhaka could have switched the attack to Lichtsteiner running in space to the right edge of the box. Instead the Swiss #10 took a wildly ambitious shot.

Leaving Benzema and Valbuena high up the pitch on the wings meant France always had an outlet ball into the channels to spring the break behind Lichsteiner and Rodriguez. Benzema won a penalty when Lichsteiner cheaply gave a pass away in midfield, leaving him out of position. Cabaye played a simple ball down the channel to Benzema and he was able to run freely down the left until Djourou made a silly tackle in the area. Benzema missed the penalty but France would soon score from another counter down the left, this time after Switzerland left themselves exposed from one of their own attacking corners. France dealt with the initial ball in and Varane played a quick outlet to Giroud completely free on the left flank. He drove forward and played a well weighted ball to Valbuena at the back post to tuck him.

The graphic below shows where Valbuena and Benzema received passes. They kept relatively wide positions on their respective flanks and received nearly all of their passes in the attacking half, often in behind the fullback tasked with marking them.

It sounds obvious but France's second goal completely changed the complexion of the match and effectively ended it as a contest. From that point on Switzerland were forced to take on a braver approach getting forward, moving their fullbacks higher up the pitch and leaving themselves wide open to counter attacks. It was a brave decision on the part of French manager Didier Deschamps not to adopt a more conservative approach at 2-0 up and have Valbuena and Benzema track the Swiss fullbacks. In the end it made for a brilliant attacking display from France and tremendous spectical.