To be completely honest, this started as an attempt to explain why France is criminally under-utilizing two of the best midfielders on the planet. It started with some statistical adjustments to this equation to not only put players on an even field in terms of possession, but also in terms of competition. The goal is to account for as many factors as possible that will alter the numbers but are out of player control to give a better indication of what “true talent” a player harnesses.
In doing this research, the numbers suggested that Morgan Schneiderlin and Maxime Gonalons are both two of the top five defensive midfielders on the planet – which isn’t really a surprise. The point, as I started writing, was to talk about how two of the best defensive midfielders on the planet combined for just twenty caps for their national team. That’s absurd. To put it in perspective, Sergio Busquets has played in as many matches for Catalonia (a team that can’t participate in official matches) as Gonalons has played for France.
As I began writing, though, I realized that I would have to come up with a formation that suited the use of both players – and I started to struggle a little bit. It’s really easy to point out the problem, but finding the solution is another story. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I probably couldn’t fit both on the pitch at the same time and keep a cohesive, attacking unit (which is what the rest of the squad is built to be).
From there, I started trying to find a playmaker to use. Someone that was excellent on the ball, that was mobile, that was capable of linking the midfield to the front line. Then it hit me.
France doesn’t really have that guy. Sure Yohan Cabaye isn’t bad, but that’s about as far as one could take that judgment on the situation. The rest of the players are very much deep-lying playmakers – best suited to play in the same area as Schneiderlin or Gonalons – box-to-box midfielders, or attacking midfielders. France doesn’t really have a guy like Schweinsteiger, Marchisio, Verratti, or Modric. They’ve got everything else, but they don’t have someone that can play as an advanced playmaker.
So the question began to set in: how does one make a squad out of such players?
I think there are three main options. France could deploy one of their defensive midfielders with two physical midfielders, they could deploy both of their defensive midfielders in a double pivot, or they could deploy one of their defensive midfielders as an advanced playmaker and the other as a defensive midfielder.
I think the simplest option is deploying one of their elite defensive midfielders as a deep-lying playmaker. In this instance, Schneiderlin is probably the best option – averaging an adjusted 6.16 tackles plus interceptions per 90 minutes last season while completing an adjusted 89.4% of his passes. Schneiderlin is clearly defensively astute enough to play as a single-pivot and his passing suggests that he’s got the ability to take over that role.
If that were to happen, I think the best pairing would be Pogba and Matuidi around him. Between the two players, Schneiderlin would have the physical presence necessary for him to roam into space. While he may vacate his nominal position occasionally, both of his midfield compatriots are more than capable of holding down the fort until he returned – with Pogba averaging more than 3.2 balls won back per 90 minutes (when adjusted, of course) and Matuidi averaging nearly five balls won back. This pairing would give Schneiderlin the most freedom, while giving the midfield a strong defensive presence, and the necessary pieces to provide a connection to the front line.
The issue I find with the first suggestion is that it puts a non-defensive player holding down a defensive role for a decent amount of the match. If France were to do that, they might as well use Gonalons and Schneiderlin – either in a double pivot or pushing Schneiderlin into a more advanced “6” role. If they were to use a double pivot, their defense seems to be locked down long-term. Between Schneiderlin and Gonalons, the ability to read and tackle balls would be arguably the best in the world for the position – and would allow both of them more range to either side – allowing the fullbacks more cover if and when they push into the attack.
The biggest problem is that it innately makes them very defensive. As I mentioned before, their squad is already very attack minded. No matter what happens in these two positions, France is poised to be a very attack-minded squad. They have an embarrassment of riches as far as strikers are concerned, Paul Pogba is very, very good when attacking, and their choices at leftback are a wingback and a fullback that tends to be more attack-minded. Outside of the innately defensive positions of central defender and keeper, there really aren’t any defensive players in the squad.
With the make-up of the squad, it’s hard to envision any sort of connection between the defensive players and the attacking players. Pogba is good, but he’s not good enough to carry the ball into the attack and he’s certain not good enough to pass the ball into that position. The wide players will have trouble running onto balls from the midfield with two players pushed back into more defensive roles. Essentially, the formation brings an incredible sense of defensive security, but relies heavily on individual ability to create chances when they’ve got the ball.
The best solution to this problem is to use on of their defensive players as more of a “6.” We’ve already seen Barcelona do this with a decent amount of success, and while I wouldn’t say either have the passing technique or vision that Busquets has, neither of them are poor on the ball – which suggests it could work. Schneiderlin has shown with United that he’s more than capable of being a roaming player. Whether he’s roaming to make plays off the ball or roaming into space to receive the ball, he’s shown he’s mobile enough to play a role of this sort.
The biggest concern with this formation – for me – is simply that we don’t know how Schneiderlin will play in an advanced role. He could end up being very, very good as a “6” or he could be absolutely lost when pushed further up the pitch. In theory, this trio is the best option – in my opinion. The trouble is whether theory and reality will coincide.
So there they are – three options with three benefits and three drawbacks. After crunching some numbers, after looking at some heat maps, after watching them play, I’ve come to the conclusion that I genuinely have no idea what their best option is. If they were to start using one of their defensive midfielders more often, it seems most likely that Schneiderlin would be situation behind Pogba and Matuidi – the way he is in option one. I can’t say that’s the best option, it just seems most realistic.