There has been a lot of discussion about how England can try to nullify the threat of Kylian Mbappé in their World Cup quarter-final on Saturday but the important thing for them to think about is how to impose themselves on France.
England had inner-confidence and focus in their win over Senegal. They have scored 12 goals in their four matches in Qatar, a sign of their attacking prowess and clinical nature. France have shown vulnerability at the back and are missing their first-choice full-backs. Jules Koundé is a central defender but has been moved out to the right due to the paucity of options and the left-back Lucas Hernandez has been ruled out after sustaining a cruciate ligament injury in their opening match. Hugo Lloris and Raphaël Varane are highly experienced but have shown fragility at times.
In the last-16 game, England looked fluid in their forward play thanks to a starting front three of Bukayo Saka, Harry Kane and Phil Foden. They all played their part in attacking at pace to open up Senegal and it would be hard to change a winning side, especially because they possess the right attributes to expose France’s full-backs. I do not think Gareth Southgate will make changes except perhaps replacing Foden with Marcus Rashford to do what Mpabbé will aim to do to Kyle Walker and keep them pushed back. After Foden’s recent performances it would be hard to not play him, but it could be a case of what does this knockout game need?
The important thing is to not make it a counterattacking match. England need to have an element of control, but it will be very end-to-end. It is imperative to recognise France’s strengths but not be overawed by them. In my career, when we played against world-class players and teams, it was embedded in our minds that we should fear them but this group does not have that. They understand the threats but also their own strengths as individual players and as a team.
Steve Holland, Southgate’s assistant, has said that teams do play a bit of “cat and mouse” when trying to keep Mbappé quiet. If England focus too much on the forward and change their style to stop him, it could also take something away from their own attacking play. It is a difficult balancing act they need to get right.
Defensively, it will be important that the central midfielders support the full-backs quickly. A midfielder may drop back and make a five-man defence to ensure that the full-backs are never left isolated one-v-one when France attack. It may be that Declan Rice or Jordan Henderson are required to back up Walker and Luke Shaw to protect the sides.
It will be a combative midfield and Southgate won’t change the personnel to protect the middle areas. Harry Maguire can deal with Olivier Giroud in the air because that is his strength. England have conceded twice in the tournament, showing the defence is well organised.
A team can still keep its shape but adjust throughout the game. If Southgate goes to a five-man defence by starting an extra centre-back, he would lose a midfielder. England have to believe in themselves more. When France have the ball, Rice, for example, can drop into a back five and when England are in possession they can revert to a midfield three, helping them push higher up and bring the necessary control. Football is fluid, formations can change in game and individuals are not shackled to one position all game; they can adapt depending on the situation.
Players are trained differently now to know the various roles they have within one match. What is great about Southgate is that he puts it on them being able to make changes within a match. If it is not working, he can drop a player into a back five and sit Henderson and Jude Bellingham deeper to get to half-time, for example, before changing it.
England’s strength is their bench. If the game is goalless after 70 minutes I would be more confident in their options to change things. A manager always wants to be able to turn to his substitutes to see what is required at the point and if he has anyone to provide it. Jack Grealish, Rashford, Callum Wilson and Raheem Sterling, should he be involved, provide England with players for almost every occasion in reserve. The great thing is they are mainly attacking options and the hardest thing to do is score goals. In knockout football, when a magic moment is required, the England bench is very well equipped.
At this point in a tournament, experience is vital. Having players that have been through this before is imperative. They know what is needed in the knockout stages and how to execute a plan. Many of this England team have made it to a World Cup semi-final and gone one better in the Euros. It is one of the reasons Southgate decided to pick the most experienced set of players available to him. They will not be overawed by the occasion on Saturday.
I am really excited about this game, not nervous. My Englishness normally makes me doubt the team but I was more apprehensive going into the Senegal match because it had everything for an upset; they were missing their best players and mainly because England were favourites.
There is an inner calm for me about facing France; England know what they are doing – I saw it against Senegal. If it does not go well it is because they have been beaten by a better team. I feel calm but I hope it does not come back to bite me.