You would be forgiven for thinking that England only have to come up against one player on Saturday. And yet even if that were the case, we would still be talking about quite the player. Kylian Mbappé has almost been the sole focus of the build-up to this World Cup quarter-final against France, as this tournament’s top scorer puts forward a compelling case to be the best in the world.
There is every chance that somebody else makes the difference at the Al Bayt. As several England squad members have been at pains to point out this week, the reigning world champions are hardly a one-man team. There is also the enduring quality of Antoine Griezmann, a rejuvenated Ousmane Dembele, not to mention France’s record goalscorer Olivier Giroud. Who knows, maybe even an England player could be the matchwinner.
But sometimes, the most important individual battle is also the most obvious one. Take this year’s Champions League final, for example. The contest between Vinicius Jr and Trent Alexander-Arnold was highlighted by just about everybody as where the game would be won and lost. Lo and behold, Real Madrid’s winning goal – the only goal – was scored by Vinicius, stealing in at the far post after Alexander-Arnold had lost track of his run.
This time, Alexander-Arnold is unlikely to be under the spotlight. Kyle Walker – armed with his famous recovery pace – is instead expected to go up against Mbappé. “Do I understand the focus? Of course I do,” he said this week. “I do understand what I need to do and that’s obviously to stop him. It’s probably easier said than done but I don’t underestimate myself.” And from his previous meetings with Mbappe, he has no reason to.
If the win-loss record is split evenly, with two victories each from four meetings, then their individual head-to-heads arguably tip in Walker’s favour. Mbappé has seldom got the better of Walker in a one-on-one battle, let alone actually scored down his side. His only goal in the four games came from Paris Saint-Germain’s right wing rather than left, finishing a Lionel Messi pass through Ederson’s legs after drifting unmarked at the far post.
But that is precisely the point: if Mbappé is not finding joy in one position, he can quite as easily crop up in another. Rely on Walker’s speed and awareness alone will not be sufficient protection against Mbappé if he instead seeks out weaknesses elsewhere. For all the attention on a single individual battle, the response to the threat of Mbappé will need to be a collective one if it is to be successful. England’s entire right-hand side will need to perform.
John Stones is set to play alongside Walker and will recall his last meeting with Mbappé at international level – in a 3-2 defeat at the Stade de France five years ago. He earned a yellow card that night for pulling the then 18-year-old back as he broke away on a counter-attack. Operating centrally, Mbappé later set up Dembele for the decisive goal in the 78th-minute, as France ran out deserved winners despite being down to 10 men.
Stones has taken huge strides over the years since but then so has Mbappé, to the point where he is a player that opponents have to specifically cater for, as Steve Holland, England’s assistant manager, admitted earlier this week. “We do need to look at trying to avoid leaving ourselves in situations where he is as devastating as we’ve all seen,” said Southgate’s right-hand man. “We have to try to find a way of avoiding that.”
Holland recalled a conversation with Jose Mourinho and how, during his time at Real Madrid, he would plan to deal with Barcelona right-back Dani Alves. “Alves would be the right back for Barcelona and flying forwards in attack, [so Mourinho] would play a soldier against him to try to stop him. But then of course, you don’t get any threat from your team from the soldier as you’re just stopping somebody. You’re not actually hurting them.”
Mourinho’s solution was to play Cristiano Ronaldo directly against Alves, “one against one”, to pin him back. “There is always a plus and a minus to every [decision],” Holland said. “It’s that cat and mouse of yes we have still got to try to deal with him but we also have to try to exploit the weakness that his super strength delivers. Trying to adapt your team to cover for that whilst still trying to create your own problems is I think the challenge.”
Fortunately, if there is a player that strikes a neat trade-off between defensive responsibility and attacking threat, it is the one likely to start on Mbappé’s nominal side of the pitch as England’s right winger. Bukayo Saka offers greater protection off the ball than his rivals for a place and still has enough to test France going the other way, particularly if England look to play on the counter-attack, as they did when taking Sunday’s last-16 tie away from Senegal.
Jordan Henderson’s re-emergence as a starting option could be important in that respect too, given his experience of providing a shuttling presence in the centre of midfield at club level. With Liverpool, the 32-year-old has helped cover for Alexander-Arnold’s sense of adventure over the years. Walker is unlikely to stray far forward but the added security Henderson offers accounts for Mbappé’s ability, if that is possible.
After all, there is no perfect way to play him. Leave space in behind and you risk him burning you with his pace. Drop off and he may still combine with the supporting cast around him to pick his way through your lines, or blow them apart with the power and precision of his ball-striking as he did against Poland. If there was a foolproof method of stopping Mbappé, he would not already be considered the best player in the world at the age of just 23.
No matter what you do or how you set up, over an infinite amount of time, a player of Mbappé’s ability will hurt you. Yet if England can just about survive a maximum of 120 minutes against a talent that may define the coming era of elite-level football, then they have a chance.