When the best center-backs go into action, they usually give the impression that everything that happens on the play has been planned by them. When Raphaël Varane stepped in to stop Belgium’s attack in Wednesday’s Nations League semi-final, he always lost the initiative. Romelu Lukaku exposed him in each duel. Whether he received from the back or if he approached the maneuver from the front, away from the area or at the goal, the nine The Belgian defender proved inaccessible to the most experienced defender of the France national team, forced against his nature to lead the rear, officiating as libero in a three-center scheme that neither he nor any of his four line mates are used to: Pavard and Lucas in Bayern, Koundé at Sevilla and Théo at Milan play in a line of four.
“The defense of three centrals has advantages and disadvantages, depending also on the positioning of the adversary,” Didier Deschamps said at the press conference this Saturday, prior to the final against Spain. “You need specific laterals and complementary centrals. As for Raphaël, in a defense of three his best position is the axis. In the Euro he played to the right of Lenglet but in Madrid, he has played there at times. It is where you are most comfortable. There it is easier to guide others ”.
All the technicians agree that the sudden transition from a defense of two to one of three centers involves a somersault. It is necessary to have several days of specific training to achieve organizational levels of assurance. First, because it is easier to coordinate two than to coordinate three; second, because the functions of the centrals in line of three tend to be complex to the extent that one of them must join the midfield to press or to manufacture the game, depending on the position of the ball and the opponent.
Deschamps – who knows the matter because he was an excellent midfielder – was alarmed by the team’s tendency to split since he introduced Benzema on the eve of the European Championship. The imbalances exhibited in the group stage pushed him from 4-3-1-2 to 5-2-1-2. He inaugurated the ingenuity in the second round, against Switzerland, with a line of three composed of Varane, Lenglet and Kimpembe. Things were so bad that Switzerland finished up to 15 times on goal, more than any of the previous opponents. France was eliminated. But the idea of hiding with three centrals did not die out in Deschamps’ mind.
The successful experiment of 5-2-1-2 against Finland (2-0) in the World Cup qualifying phase, a month ago, encouraged the coach to insist on the League of Nations. The result was that while Hazard and De Bruyne had energy, France was subdued against Belgium. When the players entered the locker room at halftime with 2-0 against, Pogba spoke up. According to the newspaper L’Equipe, when seeing that the defenders recoiled, opening a gap through which the two Belgian midfielders sneaked in, Pogba gave them a command to coordinate: if the rival attacked from the left, Lucas Hernández had to go ahead and join the pressure with the midfielders ; and if Belgium attacked from the right, the one who should come out was Koundé. Meanwhile, Varane, would keep an eye on Lukaku.
Deschamps’s words were less specific. “We roll too much!” He said, “we don’t scratch enough!”
The three protectors
France hadn’t taken as many shots since 2018, even though Deschamps fought to call in nine defenses. His bet on Varane to the detriment of Upamecano, who did acquire a long experience as the axis of a three-legged rear at Leipzig, is due to moral reasons. Varane is the only center-back of the expedition who started during the World Cup conquest in 2018. Then Umtiti accompanied him and, above all, he was protected by a trio of flyers – Kanté, Pogba and Matuidi – who are registered among the units most effective defenses in history.
Without Kanté ahead, only with Pogba, the responsibility multiplies for Varane, a fast and competent marker whose sense of placement was never his strong suit, no matter how much Manchester United has given him commander stripes. Under his leadership, the English team has conceded ten goals in ten games.
Nervous every time he is told about his new 5-2-1-2, Deschamps insisted that order – and fate – depends on “l’état d’espirit”. A matter of spirit, not tactics. Paradoxes of what until recently was a true flattening machine.
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