Abdullah Abdullah has a look at the French centre back making a breakthrough at the World Cup
So far the FIFA Women’s World Cup has seen its fair share of young attacking talent light up the world stage and produce match-winning performances. After all, the World Cup is the stage for players to announce themselves to the planet, for legacies to be set. From Linda Caicedo to Lauren James, the improvement in the skill levels of the younger players is visible to all — and it’s not only the attackers that have shone so far; defenders as well have taken their share of the limelight.
Few players have the talent and application to become starters for their countries and this is even more so with defenders. Coaches often pick their most experienced defenders going into a major tournament as they look to rely on their experience and accountability. One nation that might have the luxury of choosing at least one or two younger players instead would be France, where their talent pool in the current squad and beyond gives them, its reasonable to think that at least one or two youth prospects can make the starting 11.
Hervé Renard’s appointment has seen every player given a clean slate and while the majority of the names are familiar, the call-up of Maëlle Lakrar remains a potent choice. The continued absence of Griedge MBock through a long-term injury and the lack of minutes for both Aïssatou Tounkara and Estelle Cascarino at Manchester United meant he needed to look elsewhere for Wendie Renard’s centre-back partner.
Enter Montpellier’s Maëlle Lakrar.
The 23-year-old French centre-back’s inclusion in the 23-player squad list isn’t entirely surprising given her excellent displays for Montpellier, but being in the starting line-up has caught some people off guard. The young defender has played in a couple of different positions so far including centre-back and right-back, but she now looks settled next to her experienced teammates after starting in all three of France’s group stage matches. This analysis will profile the French defender and provide a better insight into her inclusion through data and explore why she’s vital to France’s hope of winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Maëlle Lakrar — The versatile French centre-back
The best way to describe Lakrar’s style of play is assured. The defender’s composure and competence in defending are her most defined traits and is the foundation behind her ability to identify the right positions to take up in defensive transitions and situations. Anticipating player movements and ball tracking are integral parts of Lakrar’s game, which she uses to stem the flow of passes played in behind and intercepting passes before they reach their intended targets.
Paired with her pertinent defensive instinct is Lakrar’s competent ball-playing ability and assuredness in possession. Lakrar’s ability to progress the ball into slightly more advanced areas before releasing it for the more creative players is a welcome boost in a side that is built on a core of pure defenders. While it isn’t her main attribute, Lakrar’s ability to play in a possession-competent backline isn’t out of place. She can play the ball forward to her more capable ball-playing midfielders or her central defensive partner Wendie Renard who takes up the responsibility of being the first pass out of defence.
France plays essentially in a 4-3-3 shape in settled possession, with high full-backs and complimentary wingers. This can be construed as a 4-4-2 as well but in either scenario, the centre-backs and defensive midfielder remain as the main cover players. The rest of the defence is made up of Renard, Sakina Karchoaui, and Ève Périsset who are all effective both going forward and with their ball-playing abilities. As such, there is enough for France to build upon and connect the midfield and defence together without needing another progressive passer in the team.
Lakrar’s performance against Brazil was arguably her best despite the end-to-end nature of that game. She was able to confidently deal with one of the tournament’s and NWSL’s best strikers in Debinha and limited her to merely a handful of chances, though one of them was a goal scored by the KC Current striker. That game required a lot more spatial awareness than usual given Brazil’s busy forward line running through the channels, getting on the end of crosses and through balls. Lakrar’s intelligence was needed to help smother the pace around her.
Lakrar’s profile is an intriguing one, to say the least. The Montpellier centre-back’s profile in TransferLab suggests that she’s an ‘All-Round’ central defender and her data tells us as much. The only noteworthy caveat is that the statistics are being compared to central defenders in Division 1 Feminine. A lot of her traits seem below average but it’s mostly her important defending attributes that are still respectable. She racked up 1,761 minutes for Montpellier and contributed to their five clean sheets, including wins over Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyonnais.
Any player with a score of 90+ can certainly be considered a very high-quality one. Her most impressive attribute is Interceptions (Quality) — her expected interceptions — which suggests her tactical intelligence and understanding of game state are indeed impressive. The way in which she scans the pitch and then makes decisions is improving; if you look at her ranking and percentiles against all centre-backs, she ranks in the 90th plus percentiles in the majority of the same attributes.
The next two clips showcase match situations where Lakrar has displayed the sort of defensive intelligence and forward, progressive play that’s been highlighted in the data.
The first clip is from their pre-World Cup game against Australia where Lakrar started at right-back. Though she was playing from a different position, the skill and tactical thinking still translates to this position. With Elise De Almeida stepping forward to press the Australian midfielder, Lakrar sees the vacated space along with the winger just behind her. Anticipating the pass through her and the space, she steps up and times her interception before playing a quick forward pass into Eugenie Le Sommer to put France in transition to attack.
Another passage of play from the same game sees Australia push France back, playing a series of interchanging passes but Lakrar stays on task and looks to stay close to the ball in order to track the eventual ball carrier. Once the final player takes their touch, Lakrar gives her opposition no time to settle and quickly steps in to dispossess the player and put France out of danger.
Against Jamaica, Lakrar started at right-back before reverting to her more natural home at centre-back against Brazil, again highlighting her versatility in position and the ability to adapt her defending style to both positions. Though she’s still learning her trade as a full-back, she does bring a tactical option that allows Karchoaui the left-back a lot more freedom to bomb down her flank and turn the back four into a more asymmetrical shape if Hervé Renard requires it. There is still a weakness in her 1 v 1 defending and in how well she can cope with quick players — which was especially telling against Brazil at times — however, that can all be improved over time with coaching and more experience. The intelligence to recognise dangerous areas and anticipate where the ball might end up is a necessary skill to become a better defender and one that Lakrar is adequate in.
Lakrar playing at right-back or centre-back gives France much-needed speed and cover to help in defensive transitions in order to facilitate a more attacking game. With Renard by her side, a more physical defender, Lakrar’s ability to cover and engage vacant spaces buys time for her partner to come across and help deal with the physical duels in the six-yard box. The trend of moving towards more natural defenders in three of the back four enables a team to have more players in attacking positions, whilst maintaining enough defensive nous to cover at the back. With Toletti playing at the base of midfield, there’s a clear 3-1 structure that allows France to play with two attack-minded midfielders in Grace Geyoro and Kenza Dali/Amel Majri to join the rest of the attacking unit.
If we compare France’s defensive options at centre-back, you may notice that Lakrar’s data stacks up well against her teammates. Lakrar has her strengths and for the most part is comparable to the three other defenders, even exceeding them in some aspects. Lakrar’s percentiles in Tackles (Quality), Interceptions (Quality), and 1 v 1 defending (Quality) is a few percentage points higher while the more progressive parts are in favour of the captain. The most important part to keep in mind here is her age, as she is the youngest of the four and still has room for growth. Given that the stats are close, this gives Lakrar the edge in being France’s long-term centre-back. Considering Wendie Renard’s strengths and experience, there is a clear difference in how Lakrar complements the Lyon defender.
Round of 16 and beyond
France will face Morocco in the upcoming Round of 16 (later today) and if they proceed, they could potentially meet Denmark or Australia in the quarter-finals. The chances of France winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup have significantly improved due to their enhanced performances. Additionally, their main competition in the United States and Brazil have shown unconvincing displays, while Germany were shockingly eliminated in the group stages.
One thing that stands out to me in the tournament so far is that solid defences with a well-connected midfield are neutralising the high-intensity nature of some of the matches. Lakrar plays a crucial role in France’s defence and if they advance further, her full potential will be vital for the team’s success.
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