England v France: where World Cup quarter-final could be won and lost

Back three or not back three?

The pattern under Gareth Southgate has been that England play a back four when confident of dominating the ball and a back three when they expect possession to be more contested. In four games at this tournament so far, England have played 4-3-3. The question is whether, against France, they stick to the shape that has been effective or whether, mindful of the threat posed by, particularly, Kylian Mbappé, they opt for a back three. In September, Southgate spoke of how he had allowed himself in June to be lured away from his principles, leading to four winless Nations League games, which might suggest conservatism will reign and he will opt for the back three. But this week his assistant Steve Holland spoke of how deploying a “soldier” to combat Mbappé effectively removed a player from your own side, suggesting a back four.

This same Kylian send to heaven

There were a couple of moments in the first half against Senegal when it became apparent how vulnerable the centre of the English defence is to pace. With Ousmane Dembélé and, Mbappé, France have extreme pace, and that must be a concern for Southgate. Kyle Walker has played against Mbappé with Manchester City three times; on the two occasions John Stones was inside him, City won 2-0 and 2-1, although Mbappé did get that goal. The other was that slightly strange 2-0 City defeat in September 2021 when they controlled possession but ended up whacking crosses from deep at Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling.

City, of course, play in a very different way to England, and can restrict an opponent’s influence by simply keeping the ball away from him, but Walker and Stones have shown they can cope with Mbappé. If England do take extra measures against him, the simplest way would probably be to bring in Kieran Trippier at right wing-back, with Walker moving to the right of three centre-backs, in Mbappé’s natural zone. He remains England’s quickest defender even if there are fears that after groin surgery he is not as fast as he was. But there are knock-on consequences elsewhere.

Kylian Mbappé runs at Poland's defence
Blink and you miss him. The pace of Kylian Mbappé is France’s main weapon. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

An act hath three branches

The great strength of England against Senegal was the midfield. With Declan Rice at its base, Jude Bellingham driving forward and Jordan Henderson buzzing around filling in the gaps, there was, for the first time since the Euros, a real sense of balance. If Trippier returns, who drops out? Assuming the new shape is 3-4-3, it would make sense for it to be Bellingham, but he is a versatile player who has been England’s creative hub so far. Does he then drop back alongside Rice with Henderson stepping down? That seems a huge risk given how important Henderson was in shoring things up against the USA and liberating Bellingham.

But if England switch to a 3-4-3, that gives the France midfield of Aurélien Tchouaméni, Antoine Griezmann and Adrien Rabiot a man advantage, which would seem to surrender the initiative entirely. It’s possible that could be the plan, Walker occasionally stepping up but essentially allowing France to control position and seeking to strike on the break – which was, after all, how England got their three goals against Senegal.

But it is, without question, a risk. Who else could miss out, though? Not Harry Kane, clearly. So Bukayo Saka or Foden with a switch to 3-5-2? Foden’s cleverness has been key to the last two wins and he would perhaps be more naturally suited to a role drifting off Kane, linking to the midfield. But Kane’s propensity to drop deep means there needs to be at least one and ideally two forwards to run beyond him and Saka looks more naturally suited to that.

Wings as swift as meditation

The tendency is to talk of how England can adapt to thwart France but, spectacular as Les Bleus have been going forward, they cannot feel entirely comfortable contemplating England’s attack. France have, after all, leaked a goal in every game and that without really facing a side of any great attacking potency. Even Poland, so supine against Argentina, created opportunities (so many they led the xG 1.8-1.2, albeit aided by a penalty). The area behind the full-backs appears the vulnerability – which may be an argument in favour of sticking with the 4-3-3. On the left, Theo Hernández is very attacking and gets little protection from Mbappé; while Jules Koundé on the right is a central defender out of position. Saka and Foden could make hay.

Related: England v France: the battle of the World Cup’s leading pragmatists

It did me a Griezmann’s service

The great revelation for France at this tournament has been the strength of the midfield, even in the absence of N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, with Tchouaméni and Rabiot providing a platform for Griezmann. Nobody is averaging more than his 3.8 key passes per game – although of course it helps that he has such a wealth of options to pass to, with Olivier Giroud the hard-working foil for the two more glamorous forwards outside him. A consequence of that is that Mbappé has had far more shots per game (5.3) than anybody else in the tournament. England need to shut Mbappé down, but they also need to cut off the supply – which may be an argument for the midfield three to stay as it was against Senegal, or for an extra defender to congest the area Griezmann is passing in to. Everything comes back to that issue of 4-3-3 v 3-4-3.