Reinaldo Rueda will receive criticism for Ecuador’s calamitous draw against France, but the result epitomized why they were the weakest South American side heading into the tournament alongside Uruguay.
While they don’t have the option of fielding two world-class strikers, they entered the tournament with two pacy wingers, and good goal-scorer in Enner Valencia. Rueda’s side, however, failed to win a match away from home in qualifiers, and although they squeaked past Honduras, Ecuador was aiming to claim their biggest victory in recent memory against France.
Rueda prefers to stick to his tried and tested 4-4-2, which focuses on playing attacking football solely based on wing-play and service into the two strikers. But against the French he strayed away from his basic approach. The Ecuadorian manager made one change to the side that defeated Honduras, introducing Michael Arroyo for Felipe Caicedo. Ecuador still maintained a variation of their original shape by operating in a 4-4-1-1 with Arroyo behind Enner, and this was the logical approach against a superior French side.
Arroyo pressed Morgan Schneiderlin, forcing the French midfielder to play conservative passes out wide, while Oswaldo Minda and Christian Noboa were handed the task of keeping Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba quiet. Didier Deschamps’ side struggled to create legitimate chances without playmaker Mathieu Valbuena and the suspended Yohan Cabaye. Apart from Moussa Sissoko and Antoine Griezmann laterally drifting between the lines, and Matuidi’s untracked forward runs, France’s threat in the final third was scarce.
Rueda made a few alterations as the half progressed, moving Valencia behind Enner, Arroyo to the left and Montero to the right. Valencia was struggling to contain left-back Lucas Digne, but he served as an ideal link between midfield and attack when he moved into a central role, as he enabled Arroyo and Montero to break into advanced positions but their final ball was putrid. Enner also posed a threat to the French centre-backs, and was involved in Ecuador’s best chance in the first half, as goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was forced to save his header from a lofted Arroyo cross.
France were held goalless at half-time for the first time in the tournament as Rueda’s approach constricted their offensive threat, but similar to Uruguay, Ecuador offered very little going forward; they hoped that Enner would make the most of hopeless long-balls, and he nearly did when he outmuscled Mamadou Sakho and fired a shot wide of the net.
Subsequent to Griezmann forcing Ecuadorian goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez to push his effort off the post – as Montero failed to track Sagna’s run – in the second half, Rueda’s task grew in stature as Valencia was rightly sent off for a poor studs-to-ankle challenge on Digne.
However, despite holding a numerical advantage, France became susceptible to Ecuador’s counter-attacks – ignited by Noboa – as both full-backs were often caught in advanced positions. Noboa dispossessed Pogba and Enner sprung a 3v2 break but his poor pass saw the Ecuadorian midfielder direct his shot wide of the net.
Minutes later, Noboa sprung a pass out to Montero in the left channel, and the winger shrugged off a recovering Sagna, and drove towards goal but his effort to beat Laurent Koscielny with his trickery saw the ball roll out of play. Finally, it was Noboa again who played a great ball into the left channel for the onrushing Arroyo, but like Montero, he attempted to beat Koscielny, and flashed his shot wide of the net.
France dominated possession in the second half, and Deschamps’ decision to introduce Loic Remy and Olivier Giroud displayed his intent to win the match. Dominguez, meanwhile, denied the aforesaid strikers and Karim Benzema, while Pogba nodded a header wide from six-yards out. Rueda opted to stick to his system partially because it kept France at bay and his side received chances on the break.
But with 10 minutes remaining, Ecuador transitioned into a 3-5-1 with Walter Ayovi and Juan Paredes as wingbacks, while Gabriel Achilier became the third centre-back. Ecuador received their golden chance shortly after the change, as Paredes stormed forward and played a pass into space behind Digne to substitute Renato Ibarra, who then cut in on Raphael Varane but fired his effort directly at Lloris.
Rueda will certainly receive stick for his reluctance to chase goals in the opening half, but while his approach was cautious, it was certainly effective. At even strength, France failed to test Dominguez, whereas Ecuador moved into great positions in the final third on the counter throughout the match, but their decision-making, finishing and final ball were abject.
But while we know so much about Ecuador’s misfortunes, at the conclusion of the group stages, we still don’t know how good Deschamps’ French side really is.