England are the slight underdogs for their World Cup quarter-final against France on Saturday. But as Croatia more than demonstrated on Friday, this doesn’t mean they cannot stage an upset.
For the second World Cup in a row, England have reached the final eight, having been absent from the quarter-finals in 2010 and 2014, and now they are looking to make back-to-back semi-finals for the first time ever.
Standing in their way are France, the defending champions who have already broken the group stage curse and are now looking to become just the third nation to win back-to-back World Cups after Italy and Brazil.
Didier Deschamps’ men have looked on top form for most of the tournament, once they got past their slow start against Australia, and were comfortable in their 3-1 win over Poland in the last 16. But, once England had joined them in the quarter-finals, Declan Rice said of France, “We’ve seen some weaknesses in them that we can try to exploit.”
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So, what are they? We’ve taken a look at a few.
One of the weaknesses highlighted most by the French media is set pieces.
In France’s 2-1 win over Denmark in the group stage, the Danes equalised through Andreas Christensen following a corner. It was not a direct corner assist, with a flick-on before the goal, but that is what made it even worse on France’s case. Too focused on the initial delivery, France allowed Christensen to make the second man’s run unopposed, getting in front of Adrien Rabiot to head home.
Joachim Andersen, Christian Eriksen and Piotr Zielnski have all been credited with chances created from set play against the French at this World Cup – and Harry Maguire will be looking emulate Andersen with the nod-on. It was the Manchester United centre-back, who got his head onto the end of a corner against Iran, putting the ball into the path of Bukayo Saka for the Arsenal man’s excellent strike.
As a team, England have created seven chances from set play at the 2022 World Cup and no team has had more shots from set pieces at the tournament than the Three Lions (five alongside Uruguay). Meanwhile, since the start of the 2018 World Cup, England have had 19 shots from set pieces, at least eight more than any other side.
That said, France will look to pose their own threats from dead-ball situations. According to L’Equipe, Deschamps has focussed on corners in pre-England training sessions.
Uncertainty in defence
France aren’t fielding their first-choice backline, with Presnel Kimpembe missing the tournament completely through injury and Lucas Hernandez suffering an ACL rupture in France’s 4-1 win over Australia. Dayot Upamecano and Raphael Varane appears to be the first-choice centre-back pairing (although they have started together in just two of the four games).
Whoever starts, they go up against a centre-forward who, in the opinion of Arsene Wenger, is England’s answer to Karim Benzema.
“[Harry] Kane is a bit like Benzema, a kind of forward-number 10,” the former Arsenal manager told L’Equipe. “The speed at which he analyses, his perception of the game and of space is remarkable.”
Wenger added: “Nowadays, even if he plays more as a playmaker, Kane is still extremely dangerous because he gets his shots away quickly. And he gets them on target, they don’t go in the stands.”
Meanwhile Theo Hernandez has replaced his brother on the left, but the real question marks come on the right.
Benjamin Pavard announced himself to the world stage as France won the World Cup in 2018 and was a starter in their 4-1 win over Australia. However, he has since lost his spot to Barcelona’s Jules Kounde (at the request of club teammate Ousmane Dembele, according to journalist Julien Lauren).
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Kounde did start the season at right-back for Barcelona, but he is predominantly a centre-back and more comfortable and capable there than he is on the flank. Facing him, based on England’s last XI against Senegal, would be Foden, who had a stunning game in the last 16 with a goal and two assists.
Kounde also isn’t an attacking full-back — not that he really needs to be with France’s offence — having created no chances at the World Cup so far or won possessions in the attacking third.
Once England get past Kounde, there is still the matter of Hugo Lloris in goal, but once again the Tottenham man hasn’t inspired total confidence. While a very capable goalkeeper, Lloris is still susceptible to an error — which will no doubt worry some France fans — and, although this is a mostlyt a mark against Les Bleus’ defence as a whole, he is yet to keep a clean sheet at the World Cup this winter.
Lloris was singled out as France’s weak link elsewhere and already responded in a press conference, saying: “They have their opinion and I have to respond on the pitch.”
‘England are France’s most dangerous opponents’
Less a weakness than a strength that has been neutralised, but Wenger also believes France have met their match, physically.
“France has a potential with regard to physical power which is clearly above that of other teams, with the possible exception of England,” Wenger explained (translation by GFFN).
“In this sense, the midfielders, notably Jude Bellingham, can perform well. That’s why England are maybe the team that can cause the most damage to France in this competition. It’s an early final [smiles].”