FIFA World Cup 2022: Mbappé’s quality helped France to beat Denmark – tactical analysis
In the second game of FIFA World Cup 2022 Group D, France faced Denmark, who was also from Europe. Although Andreas Christensen levelled for Kasper Hjumland’s side in a corner in the 68th minute, Kylian Mbappé scored the opener and again in the last part of the game to help France qualify for the knockout stages. This tactical analysis examines both teams’ tactics and explains how France utilized Mbappé to develop the attacking setups.
France had many injuries, Karim Benzema and Christopher Nkunku could not participate in the tournament already, the latest name on the list would be Lucas Hernández, the Bayern defender was injured in the Australia game. But the squad of France was so strong as they still put a team that have more quality than most national teams in the world, with Hugo Lloris in goal; Jules Koundé as the right-back, Theo Hernández replacing his brother as the left-back. The centre-back partnership was Dayot Upamecano and Raphaël Varane. In midfield, they had Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot, and also with an attacking four of Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé and Olivier Giroud.
Denmark played with a 3-4-2-1, with Kasper Schmeichel starting. Christensen, Joachim Andersen, and Victor Nelsson formed the back three. They played with two 6, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Christian Eriksen, and a pair of wing-backs, Joakim Mæhle and Rasmus Kristensen. The front three were Jesper Lindstrøm, Mikkel Damsgaard, and Andreas Cornelius.
Cautious Denmark limited by the France block
In the start, Denmark had more possession as France were not putting too much pressure on the ball, but Hjumland’s men were so careful to circulate until they opened up the preferable conditions to hit forward. Therefore, they rather played with a slower tempo on the ground to reduce the frequency of transitions and second battles in the middle third, because we all knew what the likes of Mbappé and Dembélé could do in those situations.
As this defending graph of France suggested, they were not pressing high, the engagement line was so deep that was just outside of their own third. It looks like to be a passive approach but this fits the personnel in the lineup, as we knew the 36-year-old Giroud did not have good intensity and coverage defensively, so it makes no sense if France played a high press. Also, another intention of the deeper defence is to draw the opposition up, and open spaces behind their defence for Mbappé to run into during the transitions.
But France were a team that had quality individuals working together as a team to defend and attack with each other. In shape, they were often asymmetrical defensively because Mbappé was going to stay high, so their rest defence were formed by Giroud, plus a gambling winger to support on the side as the above image shows. To compensate for Mbappé’s defensive position, Griezmann had to defend as a midfielder, his role required a lot of disciplined and awareness and it was an uneasy task, but the Atlético Madrid player carried it out well.
Another France objective in the midblock was to cover the central areas, they were successful in this aspect to a large extent as Denmark almost never gets their players turning in half-space. An alternative to their defensive shape was to have both Giroud and Griezmann watch the Denmark 6, the two would stay close to the second line to reduce the surface in the centre, and cover Eriksen as Giroud did here. While sometimes Højbjerg dropped out of shape to receive, Griezmann could push him vertically if the distance was close enough, but the priority, as shown in this image, was not to get the block exposed too much.
France were so clear about what they had to do defensively. They also knew Mbappé’s high position would get breached by the opponent’s passes as well, but they made those situations manageable as Didier Deschamps calculated that risk. Hence, France always needed a player who can cover huge ground and run a lot to help with the defensive work for Mbappé. In 2018, that player was Blaise Matuidi, and in this tournament, Rabiot had that role.
Because the narrow Denmark front three were drawing the France backline narrow, especially the half-winger would occupy their full-backs, France needed Rabiot’s intensity and coverage in the wide areas to defend the flanks. That means as we have shown in the above picture, when the Denmark wing-back holds the ball out wide, it was not Mbappé who came down to track, but Rabiot stepping out to push and shut the surface.
But as we said, Denmark did not start an impulsive game, they were very carefully managing the passes by keeping them on the ground and playing short. However, they were not pretending they were Spain or trying to do tiki-taka as all the passing sequences were patient work until a condition was opened up for the diagonal passes. When Denmark’s ball circulation dislocate the opposition’s second line, ended up they would create a 2v1 numerical advantage on the France full-back as their wing-backs go high and the winger stays narrow, then it was always a 5v4 at the back.
Denmark had a lot of gifted players when it comes to playing the long passes, Eriksen, Andersen, and Højbjerg all had good passing range and precision to find the players on the opposite flank. The above image shows when Lindstrøm made the run inside to engage Theo, he opened up the wide spaces for Kristensen to receive the diagonal ball.
And after Mbappé scored the first goal, France might have thought they had an easy win but Denmark resisted. Instead, Hjumland’s team was always in the game and kept pushing the opponents, but France lost a bit of focus defensively as the strikers did not cover the central areas as well as they did in the first half. Then, Denmark had more occasions to exploit Mbappé’s defensive position with the wing-back in a deeper position.
In this image, Marcus Thuram was too late to stop Eriksen as the Manchester United midfielder received the ball with time to play, then it was a difficult decision for Rabiot as he had both Lindstrøm and Kristensen around him.
Nevertheless, France were not too worried about those passes breaching behind Mbappé as Denmark also had its limitations. When they committed too many players in deep to support around the ball, or having too many players in the wide spaces for the flank attacks, sometimes they were missing players to finish in critical positions for the final actions.
Here, it was nice that Lindstrøm and Kristensen combined and they found the ball behind the France defence, with the substitute, Martin Braithwaite hunting for the pass. But when the striker moved away from the penalty box, who would be at the end of the cross? No one. So even if Denmark breached the first line or made some progression in attack, without the wing-back and 10 from the opposite side arriving at finishing positions, they could not generate too much threat.
And now we are explaining more defensive mechanisms of France to show their discipline. They were so clear about what to do and the players were able to adapt to different situations. Above there was another defending scene, we suggested Rabiot had to cover the wide spaces behind Mbappé but that was not the only outcome.
Instead, Theo was also responsible for that as he would push when he had communication with teammates. But France did not mess up the defensive responsibilities as we saw Rabiot tracking the guy hard behind Theo, while the other midfielder – Tchouaméni from Real Madrid, came across the pitch to cover another opposition. So behind Mbappé, there could be as many as three players to cover the space and France were so committed as a group to do that.
On the other side, Dembélé must be praised for his hard work defensively and his sacrifices for the group. In terms of quality, the Barcelona winger was already good enough to be a gambling winger, being licensed for defending less liked Mbappé, but what he did was the opposite. Dembélé travelled on the entire flank all the time and contributed a lot defensively. As explained, Denmark wanted to create a 2v1 situation on the France full-backs but Dembélé’s defensive presence minimized the impact of that tactic.
In this scenario, we saw Denmark attacking with a narrow front three again, but France were able to use offside to control the runs of Damsgaard and Cornelius, but you could see the effect of those efforts was to draw Koundé into a narrower position. Here, we also marked Dembélé’s starting position as a winger and now he came back to defend for his team.
Then, when Denmark breached the defence on the flank, France could be in trouble as the backline was dislocated to the other side. Koundé was occupied and so narrow in the centre, and Denmark’s crosses would have caught them as the other wing-back, Mæhle came so early to attack the penalty zone. But thanks to Dembélé’s hard work, who came back to defend for his team, now France had more coverage in the last line and at least Mæhle was not totally uncontrollable.
Denmark found the opponents’ weakness
But after France’s first goal, they switched off a bit and were less focused defensively, Denmark got some good chances after that as they managed to find the opposition’s weaknesses.
Denmark were attacking the sides as they always did, but with more runs in the inside channel to mess up France’s defence, exploiting spaces behind the wide defenders. We praised France for having a group to cover the flank of Mbappé, but there were also situations where they left Denmark received behind. For example, Rabiot wanted to pass the defensive duty of tracking Lindstrøm to Upamecano, but everything happened too quickly and they could not do the shifting. Then, Lindstrøm was able to receive Kristensen’s pass behind Theo, and France had to defend the cross.
During halftime, Hjumland also had Braithwaite replacing Cornelius as the striker, probably because Braithwaite was better at supporting the team between the lines. As Højbjerg and Eriksen often stayed deep in the construction phases, Denmark also needed someone to play in spaces. In the above image, we saw Braithwaite dropping to help, staying very close to Damsgaard. It became a Denmark 3v2 on Koundé and Varane.
As Braithwaite’s position took out Varane in the first place, Denmark’s outside-in pattern was able to breach behind the defence again with the runs behind the full-back. Here, as Mæhle received, he dragged Koundé out and Damsgaard took advantage of that surface behind, then this was one of the best opportunities Denmark created as they also had Lindstrøm and Braithwaite in finishing positions for the cross.
While we have explained many parts of France’s attacks were based on Mbappé’s quality and his cooperation with others, the tricky part is they were more than that. On the right side, the Barcelona corridor of Koundé and Dembélé was enjoying the game, as Koundé always made runs to engage defenders and open up 1v1 conditions, crossing angle, and the surface for Dembélé to cut in. It would be difficult to follow the attacking flow of France as they had both individual dynamics and team dynamics with the ball.
Although France had a deep engagement line and midblock defensively, as we suggested, Mbappé’s role was mostly a gambling-winger who stayed high to take advantage of spaces behind the defence in TDA. In the image above we had his heat map, and very usurpingly, even though France had a lower defence, most Mbappé actions were in the opposition half and very close to the penalty zone.
Mbappé had the license of defending less because he was too good in the counter-attacks. France had a huge advantage in that phase because they always knew who to look for when they recovered the ball. In the above image, it is a scene of France’s deep transition, as Denmark’s back three was so high and left spaces behind the defence, in those situations, Mbappé just used his pace to run into those areas and Denmark’s players had to stop him with fouls. This time Christensen received a yellow.
You can also compare Dembélé’s position, in the start he was deeper than Mbappé he would always join the counter. Meanwhile, they also had Griezmann playing the long balls from deep as he was good at releasing the front players.
The first goal of France come from a similar situation, also thanks to Mbappé’s impact as a gambling winger. After a big switch following a recovery on the side, Theo received the ball and went forward, which was a temporary 2v1 on the Denmark right wing-back too. Since Mbappé was high and always ready to be the first player to run behind in TDA, he can pin the defender and therefore it was too hard for Kristensen to jump and stop Theo.
The counter-attack happened very quickly, France only spent six seconds to reach the opposition box. Although the Danishes were rushing back, they were too late, now Andersen wanted to move out to help Kristensen, who was 1v1 against Mbappé, but he could not. Instead, because Theo continued the run and all the way on Andersen’s blindside, the Crystal Palace defender was distracted and could not cover Kristensen effectively, the France duo managed to combine for the first goal.
However, France were a team with great dynamics, and the way they scored the first goal was not the only way to do harm on the opposition. They had a similar situation in the first half but Mbappé made a different decision, so the outcome was different.
Here, in the beginning, was very similar to the goal as Theo carried the ball forward, France had a 2v1 on Kristensen temporarily as Mbappé’s position occupied the defender.
But then Mbappé drifted outside, he also dislocated the defenders with his position but they added another player to make that run behind Andersen, which was Rabiot, while Theo was still carrying the ball forward. In the same situation, towards the same space, France had two or three attacking methods to exploit.
Leaving Mbappé alone and using his quality in open spaces is the biggest weapon of France in the attack. Not only in transitions but also in offensive goal-kicks, we saw similar concepts applied.
When Lloris played it long, the ball went centrally and closer to the right side where Olivier Giroud was the target, and with the close proximity of France players – Rabiot, Koundé, and Tchouaméni, all ready for the second ball battles. Intentionally, Mbappé remained isolated on the flank, but if we observed his body position, he was always ready to attack spaces behind Kristensen. France, with Griezmann in the central position, he could distribute the ball to the open spaces on his left for Mbappé, which was another simple but useful attacking route for France.
In the construction phases, France midfielders were deep as Tchouaméni often received the help of Rabiot around. Then, Giroud and Griezmann could both drop between the lines to occupy those spaces, but more importantly, was to invite the Denmark centre-backs to step up to close them in midfield. When that happened, we all knew Mbappé would be going behind like a stabbing knife. He was not a high and wide player who only wanted to do dribbling on the flank, but an aggressive player whose actions always tried to look for goal-oriented actions in the attack.
In the second half, the midfield structure of France changed a bit as Denmark were more aggressive in the press, they put more pressure and run into the ball holder vertically. But then Deschamps also knew those spaces behind would be opened, and he gave Griezmann greater freedom to make runs. So, usually Dembélé’ would come a little bit deeper as he wanted the ball on his left foot, maybe also attracting Mæhle to follow. Then, Nelsson could get a bit exposed like he could not follow Griezmann in the above image. Because of that shift in tactics, Giroud also dropped less often into space but more frequently staying between two centre-backs to pin two players.
The change in the behavioural patterns of Giroud came with good effects and triggered other attacking routes of France. For example, in TDA, that also brought Dembélé in play, who went higher and higher in this phase. The image above shows France having a front three against a rest defence of a back three, but because of the staggered positioning of the attackers, France had an advantage.
Firstly, because Giroud was somehow between two defenders, and the ball was on Denmarks’ right side, Christensen and Nelsson needed to watch the ball and watch Giroud. But then Dembélé could go behind via Nelsson’s blindside. Meanwhile, because Giroud kept Christensen in the centre, Andersen was isolated against Mbappé in big space, where he was beaten by the PSG star’s silky skill and France get the ball forward easily in the counter-attack.
But France were not only that. With Mbappé, they also had other possibilities in the attack apart from those that have been explained. Sometimes he wanted to come out to pick up the ball at his feet, then obviously the opposition defender would follow, and now the space would be created behind on the sides. Although Mbappé could dribble, he also had good chemistry with others and Theo was his good partner.
This image shows Mbappé made the Denmark last line imbalance when he dropped, both Kristensen and Andersen were committed. Then, the spaces for a simple one-two were generated and he released Theo in a good crossing position.
As we have dissected in detail in this analysis, this is a good tactical battle between France and Denmark as both teams tried to win the game, but Deschamps’s side definitely had more quality, and from the quality they have greater tactical flexibility across different phases of plays. It was hard, not only for Denmark but also for other future opponents to handle the flair of Mbappé and Dembélé. France were the better side and also as the xG result: 2.89–0.75 suggests, they could have scored more than two in the game.