Today was about England and France eyeballing each other over their respective opponents, with the only drama being whether or not they would get caught looking too far ahead. They most certainly did not, engaging in a “Anything you can do..” dance that set them up for a glossy quarterfinal on Friday. Let’s get into the nuts and bolts.
Either choice would have been acceptable, if I’m allowed to give myself an out or an excuse, as both games followed kind of the same pattern. The chatter the past couple of days has been around what to do against a team that’s sitting off of you and trying to nullify your space in midfield, thanks to the U.S.’s struggle against such a side. One answer is, “have Kylian Mbappé.” Sadly, that’s only available to one team in this tournament.
It’s obviously more complicated than that, but not by much. Poland did their usual Poland thing, which was to pack five across midfield and hopefully limit Antoine Griezmann’s access to the ball while keeping both Mbappé and Dembele wide. The Poles actually looked a little more aggressive, a low bar for them admittedly, on the rare times they got the ball and might have had the best chances in the first half. Hugo Lloris had to pull off a great save to keep from shockingly going behind, along with a Raphael Varane goal-line clearance in addition.
But that was about it for Poland’s threat, because they’re Poland. And you can plan to keep Mbappé out wide or burden him with extra defenders, and he’s still going to open you up. To open the scoring for France was a matter of him drawing defenders to him just enough to find an alley to slip a through-ball to Olivier Giroud, which is the unheralded part of his game:
Again, it’s beyond easy and cliche to say goals change games, but when the team that’s the favorite and has been facing a low block all night scores first, it flips everything on its head. Poland couldn’t simply hold out and hope anymore. Which means more space for France, which means Mbappé has more space, which means…
The second goal, which is unfair and rude, got most of the plaudits but the first one is high on the stupid level too. You’re not supposed to be able to beat a keeper, especially one having the tournament that Szczesny was until this point, that effortlessly at the near post. Poland probably thought they had this covered, for just an instant, given that it did look like Mbappé waited too long and had his options narrowed. Except he always has an out, he always has an option. I guess any player always has an option if, “Release a Hadoken of a shot with minimal backlift” is in their holster.
If France has a worry, and it’s hard to tell if they do, it’s that Poland was able to get at them occasionally down their right side, where Jules Kounde looked a little out of place as a right-back. England certainly don’t lack options on the left side of their attack. But then, when you have No. 10 in your attack, are you ever all that worried?
It’ll be washed away after the final score, but England did not look great before they took the lead, and just like Poland, Senegal had the best chance with the score at 0-0. Both teams will spend a while wondering what would have happened if they could have finished. On such margins…
Much like France, much like Argentina, and much like the U.S. even, England was facing a disciplined opponent whose first, second, and third aim was defending and cutting off space. But whereas France and Argentina called upon otherworldly individual brilliance, England went the otherworldly team brilliance route for their first goal:
This is what the U.S. couldn’t do, but the U.S. don’t have Harry Kane or Jude Bellingham. Bellingham shifts out a little wider and drops a little deeper, Kane does his thing where he drops in deeper but behind the opponent’s midfield line. The England defense feeds a ball through the lines to Kane who can then flick a pass to the on-rushing Bellingham, whose touch is so silky soft your knees just disappear and he can control it at full speed and get to running at the Senegal defense. Henderson follows him through the middle, both goal-side of the midfielders that had been tasked with marking them and keeping them from getting passes from the England defense. Kane completely flips the play on them.
Much like France, the game flips when England take the lead, as Senegal couldn’t wait around. Whereas the U.S. has Jesus Ferreira only occasionally attempting this, and also having a terminal case of “being Jesus Ferreira” and not Harry Kane. The US midfield wasn’t dedicated enough to dropping deeper or wider to try and either lose their markers or provide space for their forwards to dive into. And they simply don’t have this level of talent. That’s how you get what we got here last week (or Saturday, as it were). This is how you get to be England, prancing to the quarters and looking like a genuine favorite for the whole thing.
Senegal haven’t been great when they have to take the initiative in this tournament, as England really only had to focus on Ismaila Sarr. They were pretty easily picked apart for goals two and three:
Life’s easier when you have Jude Bellingham to dribble through an entire midfield.
England-France is almost too good for a quarterfinal, but that’s our treat. England’s strength, the Rice-Bellingham axis in midfield, is exactly where France have suffered some injuries and are a little inexperienced as a result. Griezmann makes them dangerous but he also leaves them a little lightweight in the middle. But they also have Mbappé, which is the punch-the-game-board answer to everything.
It’s a tie between England’s first, a symphony of passing and movement, and Mbappé’s third. We already posted both, so you can decide:
Not today, Satan.
No, but now feels like a good time that the broadcast of every game does not need a shot of Gianni Infantino in his fucking suite sitting in his fucking plush recliner every goddamn time. It’s a reminder of how we ended up with this hell tournament. Remember, originally FIFA thought they could hold this thing in the summer in Qatar, because all the people voting on it were not only bagging bribes for millions (allegedly) but they didn’t have to concern themselves with the heat. They would go from their air-conditioned hotel suites to their air-conditioned limos to their air-conditioned skybox at the stadium and back again. Seeing Infantino sitting in one every game he attends is just about the starkest image of how such a thing like this ridiculous tournament could happen, because the guys making decisions are only the types to be sitting in that type of a chair at that portion of the stadium, only making considerations for guys who sit in that type of chair in that portion of the stadium.
After two weeks it’s getting harder and harder to actually distinguish the words Lalas says more than just hearing his voice as a constant drone. It’s aggravating that Fox’s coverage of this has tried to mimic their NFL coverage’s most annoying habit, which is having their analysts not only narrate replays (not their job) but also trying to sound funny and cool while doing it. Lalas’s trick today was while doing postgame highlights of France’s win, attempting to advertise and tease his Power Rankings to follow as if we were waiting for them on the same level of the CFP standings. Power Rankings are a curse upon all sports coverage, and even more so when a dunderhead like Lalas is authoring them and justifying changing them based on one game or one half, and even more so beyond that when he treats them like some final tablet on the state of the game today. NO ONE GIVES A SHIT.