You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, an ex-girlfriend once told me as she closed the door behind her. To be fair, Iceland’s Euro 2016 campaign has been much more successful than my dating life, but ultimately they, too, couldn’t have everything they wanted.
Iceland was successful because they were able to keep tight defensive shape and work hard off of the ball and make it tough for opponents to break them down. They would capitalize on an opponent’s mistake before the opponent found one of theirs’. When you choose defensive tactics you need to pick your poison. You can’t have everything you want and take every option away from the other team. You need to decide what you are willing to give up and hope the other team doesn’t take advantage of it. The most basic choice comes down to either pressure on the ball or space behind your defenders.
Iceland chose throughout the tournament to get pressure on the ball and keep a high defensive line to stay compact, but it left exposure behind them. England failed to exploit it. France, though, found the space only 11 minutes into the game. Blaise Matuidi receives the ball at midfield and picks up his head. He plays a short five yard pass to Payet who bounces it one touch right back to Matuidi. This is the key pass in the play. When a team, like Iceland, tries to stay compact through midfield, they will a) use a defender to step to the player so he can’t turn in between their lines and b) once the ball gets played backwards, read the backpass as an opportunity to squeeze the field and move up a couple yards (“Take space!”). It seems like an innocuous exchange between the French midfielders but it sets up Iceland right where they want them. The right center back for Iceland moves up five yards to step to Payet’s back to force the backpass, leaving a gap in the right center back zone, and the left center back moves up three yards once the backpass is made, making it difficult for him to run and cover the space. It leaves an opening for France to exploit.
Smart forwards know that when that ball goes backwards, it’s an opportunity for the next ball to go forward. It’s a pattern teams and players work on from a young age. It’s a traditional “up, back, through” pattern. The forward starts sprinting towards goal as the defenders are moving away from it.
From there, it’s a simple ball dropped in behind the Icelandic defenders for Giroud to attack. The Arsenal #9 takes it well, powering the ball low and hard towards the far post, intelligently skipping it off the wet grass. It’s a nice finish, but not one we are at all surprised to see an international striker take.
Iceland aimed to deny space in between their lines, which they did, but in the end it was the space behind them that got ‘em.