France took on Kazakhstan in their second FIFA World Cup qualifiers game during this international break on Sunday, 28th March. It was a game that Les Bleus were expected to win, and so they did.
Didier Deschamps’ side cruised to a 2-0 win. But more than the result there were other sub-plotlines that were developing on the road to the UEFA European Championship in the summer. And among them is France’s search for their first-choice No.9.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup champions have a decent reservoir of attackers to choose from. Just from the squad picked for this month, they have Anthony Martial, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Wissam Ben Yedder, Kingsley Coman, and Kylian Mbappe who are capable of playing as a centre-forward and have done so on at least one occasion in the past few games.
Amongst such big names, it is, in all honesty, a surprise to see Martial. The Frenchman is not having a good season at Manchester United when it comes to his goal-scoring output. He has scored in just 3 of his 22 Premier League games so far. So it is fair to say that his exploits for the Red Devils are not enough by itself to hand him a place in the France XI.
So, it becomes apparent that there was a lot at stake for Martial against Kazakhstan, where he was handed a start as the striker after Olivier Giroud started in the 1-1 draw against Ukraine.
France played in a 4-2-3-1 formation on the day, with Martial up front, Griezmann playing just behind him, and Ousmane Dembele and Thomas Lemar on either wing in a potent front four. Their opposition, however, were wary of their threat and sought out to defend from minute one as they lined with a 5-man backline and a 3-man midfield.
And throughout the match, Martial was tending to drift slightly to the left-hand side. But he was clearly the main man up top. The average player positions in Image A show that he was the furthest player forward for France after right-winger Dembele, and how he was tending to drift slightly to the left in order to open up an angle to have the ball on his stronger right foot.
His heatmap in Image B further shows how he was entrusted to lead the line and that he was rid of any defensive duties. But it also highlights one more thing, which we will get to next.
A sign of a good centre-forward in today’s time is their ability to offer more than just being on the end of crosses and passes inside the box. And Martial was showing how he had it in his locker to drop deep in order to get possession and link-up play with the midfielders as well as the wingers.
So Image B shows how he was dropping deeper to get on the ball. Image C further displays the touches taken by Martial in the 59 minutes that he played. It is evident that he was not just utilized as an out-and-out target man by Deschamps, but as a No.9 who can link the play as well.
A good example of this is in Image D, where Martial (black circle) is coming deep in order to get possession. This draws 3 Ukraine players (yellow circles) out with him, allowing the two French wingers (blue circle) to be the two most advanced players forward.
Image E shows how the above tactic worked wonders in the 47th minute of the game when Martial (blue circle) dropped deep to receive possession. Ukraine’s centre-back, Sergey Maliy, (yellow circle) pressurises him and concedes a foul.
Martial gets up quickly and takes a quick free-kick. Because of him dropping into a #10 position, Griezmann (red circle) and Dembele (white circle) now have space to exploit. The ball is played to Griezmann, who scores, but the goal is ruled out for offside.
This moment came after France were already 2-0 up. And the reason for their lead was a sublime Martial assist. The Frenchman spun gracefully around a charging Ukraine defender and ran at the Ukraine defence.
Image F shows how Martial (red circle) has 7 defenders (yellow circle) focused on him, leaving Dembele (black circle) free. The ball is passed to the Barcelona winger, who scores past Alexandr Mokin.
Martial’s dribbling really had the Ukrainians scared, as evident above. They did not want to afford any space for him, which is why his role as a creator was more important for France than his role as a finisher against Kazakhstan.
It is also not a bad idea for the French to utilize him in a similar role going forward. Martial might be a No.9 by trade but he likes to get involved and create for others too. Image G shows how he is still the team’s 3rd-best creator (xA and xA90) in the Premier League this season (minimum 10 games) despite having a wasteful season in front of goal.
Martial showed once again that he was a great option for France in the No.9 position. He is a striker who likes to get on the ball and be involved more in the game. His preference to get on the ball and run at defenders was on display against Kazakhstan as he completed the joint-most dribbles in the game with three.
In that regard, he is different to Olivier Giroud, who does not get a lot on the ball. For example, the Chelsea man took 19 touches in his 63 minutes against Ukraine last week and did not even attempt a single dribble.
In comparison to that, Martial took 33 touches, completed 1 key pass, and attempted 4 dribbles against Kazakhstan in fewer minutes. The two are, hence, different types of strikers with their own strengths and it is up to Deschamps to decide what approach he wants to take, and if he can play with both on the pitch.
Martial had to be withdrawn in the 59th minute after an injury scare as he fell awkwardly to a challenge in the penalty area. That put an end to an inspiring performance from Martial where he was looking like France’s best player on the pitch.
France are the World champions and the level of performances needed to be a regular in their team is very high for sure. But displays like the one Martial displayed against Kazakhstan make a strong case for him to be a regular in the Euros squad.
Coman and Mbappe are almost always used as wingers by Deschamps while Griezmann is rarely ever playing as an out-and-out No.9. It seems like a three-way competition between 34-year-old Giroud, Martial, and Ben Yedder to be their top man up front.
And if Martial replicates such performances for club and country in the last few months of this season, there is no doubt that he would be a strong contender for a starting spot in the France national team this summer.