U.S.-France Semifinal Preview: Beware Delie, Necib, And The 4-2-3-1

A few months ago, Richard Farley (who does an excellent job over at Foxsoccer.com, where you can find the suddenly ubiquitous Jenna as well) and I started to predict what was going to happen in the Women’s World Cup.

I had just seen the U.S. get taken apart by England (at least in the first half) in a friendly, saw England had a relatively easy group, and told Richard that England might be able to make it all the way to the finals to face Germany.

(I was never sold on Brazil for reasons that I don’t have time to get into here, but they had to do with disorganization in the federation, etc.)

Richard countered with France. Typical Farley, I thought, pick an obscure squad that no one else was going to look at. France wasn’t going to touch Germany, and had CONCACAF champion Canada in their group. There was no way.

Of course, truth be told, although I don’t like to admit it publicly, Richard is usually correct in these arguments.

And, another truth be told, I hadn’t really done any research on the subject (which is probably why Richard is usually right most of the time, shocking how that works). The more I looked at France, the more I was impressed. There were some curious results (like losing to Holland in the Cyprus Cup in the spring), sure, but it was most certainly a program on its way up.

After going to the finals of the UEFA Champions League in 2010 with a good chunk of the French national team, Lyon won it in 2011 impressively over German opposition (Turbine Potsdam), and by wiping out England’s best team – Arsenal – in the semifinals.

The French women’s league is probably the third best league in the world. Montpellier, which went to the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010, finished fourth domestically – even with French goal scoring machine Marie-Laure Delie leading the way – and didn’t even qualify for the Champions League last year.

You add in a veteran coach in Bruno Bini, a supportive federation, and the World Cup right next door, and you’ve got yourselves a sleeper.

If France finished second behind Germany, it would likely get England in the quarterfinals, and France could take them, which would likely get them Brazil in the semis. And so, I picked a France-Germany final (yea, I had the U.S. losing to Germany in the semis. Sorry.)

And so, here we are, the United States and France in the semifinals. Perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised. And we certainly shouldn’t think this will be an easy game for the U.S.

Here are the five things to look for in Wednesday’s semifinal (11:30 a.m., ESPN):

1) France’s tactical setup could give the U.S. fits

Bruno Bini began the tournament against Nigeria with a 4-3-3, with Gaetane Thiney and Louisa Necib wide, and captain Sandrine Soubeyrand as a lone holding midfielder.
You may forget this now, but it was an epic failure, Soubeyrand (basically the Shannon Boxx of the French side, a 37-year-old veteran, with 166 caps) was so exposed that she had to be subbed out of the scoreless game at halftime. Delie’s great finish helped France survive 1-0, but they hardly looked like contenders.
Most people in the know thought Bini was going to have to drop Soubeyrand for the pivotal second game with Canada.
Ah, contraire.
Bini switched the formation to a 4-2-3-1, pairing Soubeyrand with Elise Bussaglia in the holding role, and allowing Necib to sit in front of them, with Thiney and Camille Abily in wide positions.
(I’ll stop, sorry.)
The rest is history, France annihilated Canada 4-0, before losing to Germany with some changes to their lineup.
Of note, Bini has also made two changes in the back from the opener against Nigeria. Right back Wendie Renard is an impressive physical figure at 6-foot-1, and scored in the Champions League final for Lyon, but has looked out of place at the World Cup and likely won’t start Wednesday.
However, her defending has been suspect at best, so Bini has replaced her with Laure Lepaiileur, and Ophelie Meilleroux has been dropped for Sabrina Viguier.
Two things should make U.S. fans very concerned:
a) Although they needed a late goal and the game went to penalties, France was by far the better team against England, and for long periods of the game, England couldn’t even sniff the ball. With the possible exception of Japan, France is the best technical team in the world.
b) The U.S. 4-4-2 setup may leave Necib plenty of room to operate in between the midfield and defense. Sweden caused all sorts of problems in the first half by sitting in that hole, and it basically led to both goals, certainly the first one, and you could argue the second as well.
To give a player as technically talented as Necib time to run at your back four is not a scenario the U.S. wants to see too many times Wednesday, and we’ll see how Pia Sundhage tries to adjust.

2) Becky Sauerbrunn will see her first action in Germany

One thing you have to admire about Sundhage, there was little question what would happen when the U.S. advanced and Buehler was ineligible for the semifinals.
Becky Sauerbrunn would step in and take her place. No debating, no “we’ll see”, Sundhage had Sauerbrunn practicing with the first team and the issue was settled. In Sundhage’s mind, why would Sauerbrunn be on the roster if she wasn’t going to use her?
We can debate whether her inexperience (her 11 caps is second lowest among field players on the U.S. roster, and would have been lowest if Lindsay Tarpley hadn’t gotten hurt and Kelley O’Hara replaced her) will be a factor, but Sundhage has shown complete confidence in Sauerbrunn, that will carry over to her teammates, and hopefully to Sauerbrunn in a very big spot.

3) Can the U.S. take advantage of the French inexperience?

One of the things that made it hard to pick France is that there is just no history on the international stage. France did qualify for the World Cup in 2003, and actually tied Brazil on a late goal, but went out in the group stages. Four likely French starters (Viguier, Laura Georges, Soubeyrand, and Sonia Bompastor) were in the starting lineup for that match.
But that’s it, really.
France will compete in the Olympics for the first time in 2012 and never got out of the group stage of the Euros until 2009 when they lost to Holland in the quarterfinals.
The good news for France is that Bini, like Sundhage, seems to instill confidence in his players no matter what the situation. Like the U.S., they were up against the wall in the quarterfinals and had to go to penalties, but showed no panic in either.

4) Will fatigue be an issue?

Obviously, the United States left everything they had on the field on Sunday. Of course, France did as well, but it was on Saturday, giving them one extra day of rest which could be pivotal, as neither team is going to change too much in their lineup at this point.
If you’ve been reading the stuff here all tournament long, I’ve mentioned U.S. fitness coach Dawn Scott more than once, and she’s earning her paycheck in the last couple of days. By all accounts, she’s one of the best in the business, and if fatigue isn’t a factor in this game, she’ll have done a better job than most people will ever know.
(I am a little tired of hearing about Hope Solo’s shoulder and Abby Wambach’s heel, though. It’s the World Cup semifinals. They’re going to play.)

5) A set piece could be the difference

Not to get back to simplicity, but neither team has looked completely comfortable defending free kicks and corners in the World Cup (really, no one has), and with Abby Wambach and Marie-Laure Delie – probably the two best pure center forwards in the world right now (Delie is the third leading French scorer all-time with 23 goals in just 24 caps) – hanging around, it will only take one missed mark and one timely header to turn the tide.


Kirsi Heikkinen of Finland will be your referee

Heikkinen has more of a history with France than the U.S. She sent off goalkeeper Berange Sapowicz in France’s 4-2 loss to Germany (which forced Celine Deville to play the quarterfinal), and was also in the middle for France’s quarterfinal loss (in penalties) to Holland in Euro 2009.
The last time Heikkinen officiated a U.S. match was early in 2010 when they beat Germany 3-2 to win the Algarve Cup in Portugal.
She’s an experienced referee, but so is everyone at this point.
Prediction: United States 2-1

Sweden vs. Japan (2:45 p.m., ESPN)

Kind of a shame that this game is getting overlooked in these parts, but what are you going to do? It’s funny that the knock on both these teams coming in was their lack of finishing. It’s always a dilemma among coaches, when you get in a scoring slump, do you practice finishing more or does that just bring more attention to the problem?
This should be a very good match, and just about too close to call. More penalties?
Prediction: Sweden 1-0

6 thoughts on “U.S.-France Semifinal Preview: Beware Delie, Necib, And The 4-2-3-1

  1. Jao

    Bini announced today that Meilleroux will be starting against the United States. She hasn’t played since the first match after suffering a knee injury in training after the Nigeria match, which is cause for concern. Bini’s reasoning was weird saying Meilleroux’s been a starter for a year and a half and deserves to be in the lineup. Personally, I would of stayed with Viguier. She’s been decent in both her appearances at the back.

    1. Ray Curren Post author

      Thanks Jao. Can see it both ways, don’t think Meilleroux played that poorly, but after such a good performance in the quarterfinals, some coaches would have left things alone.

  2. Paul Thomas

    I’d much prefer to see the USA also adopt a 4-2-3-1 formation.

    For one thing, Rodriguez’s continued presence in the lineup (and invariable early substitution, wasting a player change to boot) is simply inexplicable, as her profligate wasting of chances created by other players is more a benefit to the other team than to the US. Right now she’s like that guy in a pickup basketball game that you deliberately leave open in the hopes that he’ll chuck it up there.

    For another, it’s frankly just the best formation right now. People have yet to uncover an alignment that will consistently break it down.

    The back seven can stay unchanged from Sunday, but I’d put Wambach up top as lone striker (a role which fits her much better, particularly since the Achilles thing is hampering her mobility) and use a second line of Rapinoe, Lindsay and Cheney.

    I’m convinced this is the best lineup for the US’s current personnel– the weak left side gets more support since Rapinoe tends to hang back more, the strong right side can get service from Krieger when Cheney drifts into the middle, and the center of midfield (identified in the article as a key problem area) is reinforced with three players rather than two– not to mention Lindsay’s ability to retain possession far exceeds Rodriguez’s.

    Of course, my opinion is worth exactly as much as you’re paying me for it.

  3. Luke

    The 4-2-3-1 is certainly in vogue now, but for good reason. It gets numbers forward, and your defense is rarely left exposed because there is always at least one defensive midfielder buffering them.

    I too would like to see the U.S. try it, but there is no way Sundhage will switch up formation at this critical stage. Something like this:

    Krieger Sauerbrunn Rampone LePeilbet
    Boxx Lindsey
    O’Reilly Wambach Cheney

    I would bench Lloyd because she and Boxx have failed to take control of the game time and time again. Lindsey isn’t flashy, but she rarely makes an errant pass. The U.S. has to chase far too much against quality opponents because they simply give the ball away cheaply. I’m worried about this against France’s 5-woman midfield. They aren’t pacy like Brazil, but they are smart about using angles and their numerical advantage. Necib is one of the most clever midfielders in the world at working the ball through tight spaces. But Lloyd has played the most minutes this year, and has started every game if I’m remembering right, and is a coach’s favorite, so I’m not holding my breath. I think a good role for her would be is attacking midfield/forward if the U.S. is trailing late in a match. She loves to shoot, and this is only dangerous when she is nearer goal. Those 30-40 yard bombs aren’t helping anyone. Nor are her turnovers or fouls in the defensive third.

    Also, Rodriguez has been hustling well, but that isn’t why forwards are on the field. They need to score, or at the very least be creating dangerous chances. With the exception of that lob vs. Sweden, A-Rod isn’t doing either. Morgan has been quiet, but I’d like to see what she can do for 90 minutes when she has time to settle in, rather than coming on only in high pressure situations with 25 minutes left. Also, her speed and bending runs would challenge France’s defense, which isn’t quick.

    1. Ray Curren Post author

      I think me (and Jenna) agree to a point, but we’ve long given up on Pia making any formation changes, at least for now. So we have what we have.

  4. TDK

    My problem with the 4231 as far as the USWNT goes: we don’t have enough scoring to use 2 holding mfs, OTOH we do have a well-organized back line (if a bit slow at LB) to protect Solo. So how about a diamond-ish 442 or 4132 (pull Lindsey back):


    Cheney might need reminding to track back, but as she drifts inside anyway there’s no point not putting her there to start with and doing that won’t take away Rapinoe’s spot.

    Speaking of other formations, I was kind of hoping Brazil’s 343 would be functionally like Barca’s 343 (or rather 3-7): Alves may line up at RB but he plays very high up the pitch, often higher than the midfielders, and sometimes both backs move up and Busquets drops back; Fabiana has a set of wheels and could play the Alves role for Brazil. That also requires organization (which requires practice time together, which clearly they don’t get) and constant high pressing. Unfortunately Brazil’s 343 was not that.


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