By Sam Polak
United Soccer Coaches member Sam Polak has written for several soccer publications including, MLSsoccer.com and FourFourTwo, and is currently an opposition analyst for the USL side Oklahoma City Energy FC. The majority of his work focuses on the underlying tactical and technical concepts of soccer that run consistent through all levels of the game.
“It depends” is often the most appropriate response when it comes to any number of questions we or our players may have.
When is the right time to shoot? Should this next pass be a penetrating one or a safer ball to prioritize keeping possession? Where is the best place to be positioned as our team enters the middle third? How can we create an advantage going to goal given our opponent’s organization?
It can depend on any number of things— the player, the situation, the previous training sessions, the team, the competition, etc.
But, this doesn’t mean that there still aren’t a couple universal truths in the game. And one absolute is that the more good decisions a team makes over the course of a match, the better the chance that team has at putting in a good performance.
As implied though, decision making is usually discussed in the context of offense. All those typical questions above refer to moments when a team is trying to solve a problem with the ball.
Defensive decision making is just as crucial however. And this fact was enormously evident for both sides during the France vs. Belgium semi, but particularly for France as they went on to claim a spot in the World Cup final with the 1-0 win.
One such defensive decision France had to make in their semifinal bout was how they were going to try and contain their opponent’s most technical players at certain times. It’s no secret that it is almost impossible to fully control talented players like Eden Hazard’s influence on a match, there were instances France made decisions that did diminish his impact.
In the moment above, France defended in a way where if they were going to be broken down, it was going to come at the hands (or feet) of a different player. They elected to force a player like Hazard to have to pass and valued winning the ball back as a secondary aim.
And although this post is focused on France, it is worth mentioning Belgium can be seen doing something very similar with respect to Kylian Mbappe below as well.
France continued to show their sound ability to evaluate crucial defensive decisions in another way: they elected to close down space differently based on which Belgian player had the ball.
Consider the sequence below.
Les Bleus, recognizing Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld (primarily a central defender) was about to have a shot, did not immediately close him down and almost invited him to have a go at goal.
Didier Deschamps’ team showed their savvy to treat Kevin De Bruyne, at a similar distance to goal, much differently than Toby Alderweireld. They immediately eliminated the space in front of KDB and forced an errant shot.
This type of awareness led the French team to make sharp and astute decisions on the defensive side of the ball, which was one reason they had the edge in this matchup.
Moreover though, quality defensive decision making can go beyond just opting for a specific action over another based on certain circumstances. It can also be about making a choice to fully commit to a pre-assigned task.
It’s safe to assume that prior to the game the French coaching staff determined which of their players were going to mark which Belgian attackers during set pieces. Interestingly, they gave Paul Pogba some of the hardest defensive work in these situations.
Pogba was asked to mark Vincent Kompany, Belgium’s physically imposing center back who had just come off a goal in the previous match against Brazil, on corners.
Pogba was then asked to handle Marouane Fellaini, a player known for his aerial prowess, on throw-ins in potentially dangerous parts of the field.
I don’t think many people would object to the idea that Pogba is one of the world’s best with the ball at his feet. Yet, France asked him to take on some of the most demanding defensive challenges of this game and consequently devote a huge chunk of his energy to stopping Belgium on set pieces and not to when France was attacking.
It would have been easy for Pogba to shrug off these assignments or save energy for when France were in possession. But he instead elected to fully dedicate himself to these less glamorous parts of the 90 minutes.
This type of decision making from Pogba, choosing to defensively do what was necessary for his team to succeed, had a huge impact on limiting Belgium’s opportunities to score. It’s even likely that Pogba’s willingness to sacrifice for the team in this way would have had a positive effect on the entire team’s mentality.
As important as it is to get the overarching defensive tactics right (how many players behind the ball in parts of the field, how many defenders or defensive midfielders, when to press or not to press, etc) as a coach, these ideas will never work without individual players making good decisions within that framework.
This is a French team that gave up three goals to Argentina, but have gone on to keep two clean sheets and progressively improved defensively in each outing since. Importantly, France has not made any tactical or personnel changes to achieve this. It’s been each player’s personal commitment to making excellent choices on defense that has them on the precipice of winning the World Cup and this is something worth being mindful as coaches.