Matty Cash failed to stop Kylian Mbappe – but says there is an England player who can

France's Kylian Mbappe, left, fights for the ball with Poland's Matty Cash during the World Cup round of 16 match between France and Poland - AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
France's Kylian Mbappe, left, fights for the ball with Poland's Matty Cash during the World Cup round of 16 match between France and Poland - AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

Matty Cash has just endured football’s ultimate test, but could still offer a very specific hope for England ahead of Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against France.

“Kylian Mbappe is amazing but I think Kyle Walker is England’s best right-back and he’s just as quick,” said Cash. “If anyone’s going to stop Mbappe, I think Kyle Walker is the man. He is brilliant and he’s rapid as well.”

Mbappe had just become the youngest player to score five goals in the knockout phase of the World Cup since Pele and his France team could also become the first since Pele’s Brazil in 1962 to win consecutive tournaments.

With Mbappe starting as an advanced forward on the left of a 4-2-3-1 system, it is the opponent’s right-back who is faced with a frighteningly thorough examination. And so it was a measure of Mbappe’s brilliance that Cash, the Poland and Aston Villa right-back, could leave the pitch feeling that he played well even though that the 23-year-old had still scored two wonder goals to seal a 3-1 win.

Manchester City's Kyle Walker (L) and Paris Saint Germain's Kylian Mbappe (R) in action during the UEFA Champions League semi final, first leg soccer match between PSG and Manchester City at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, France, 28 April 2021 - YOAN VALAT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Manchester City's Kyle Walker (L) and Paris Saint Germain's Kylian Mbappe (R) in action during the UEFA Champions League semi final, first leg soccer match between PSG and Manchester City at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, France, 28 April 2021 - YOAN VALAT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Cash had prepared for the assignment by watching videos of Mbappe from the comfort of his hotel room but would later discover a striking difference between theory and torrid reality.

“I watched the videos while lying in bed – in real life he’s burning my legs,” said Cash, who had left the pitch still not really knowing whether the most effective tactic was to drop off to give himself time and space against Mbappe’s electric pace or stay tight to prevent him generating momentum.

“He’s obviously unbelievable – when he gets the ball, stops and moves, he’s the quickest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Cash. “He drops the shoulder, goes short, then long. I didn’t know whether to drop off or go tight. When I went tight, he just spun in behind.

“There were times where he got space on the counterattack which is where he scored the second goal, and that’s where he hurts teams. He does that week-in, week-out. It’s a different level. I play in the Premier League, and I play against top-class wingers, but he’s easily going to be the best player in the world. He’s got everything.”

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Mbappe’s double took him to 33 international goals already and, while Olivier Giroud was also celebrating passing Thierry Henry’s all-time France tally to reach 52, that record will surely soon pass to Mbappe if he stays fit. He has scored 17 international goals in just the past two years and five from three starts in this World Cup.

“It’s difficult to see the limit for Kylian, he is capable of breaking all records – it’s amazing to have a teammate like him, for his spirit but for his talent as well,” said France captain Hugo Lloris.

For Cash, who had also faced Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the previous match, the World Cup has been a wonderful learning experience.

“I said to him at the end ‘Can I have your shirt?’ and he gave me his match-worn shirt so I’m delighted with that,” he said.

“I’m going to frame it. For me to come away with that and obviously play against Messi and Mbappe in the last four or five days is fantastic and I’ll take a lot from that.

“I’m obviously still a young kid, learning the game, and to be at a major tournament playing against the world’s best players is something you dream of.”

England look to pull off ‘Operation Kylian Mbappe’

By James Ducker

Walker's performance against Mbappe could be the difference between victory and defeat - GETTY IMAGES
Walker's performance against Mbappe could be the difference between victory and defeat - GETTY IMAGES

No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher famously said. But there may be more than a few aspiring young players who will come to look rather fondly upon Kyle Walker should “Operation Kylian Mbappe” go the way of last year’s showdown in Paris and the Manchester City right-back help England topple France en route to a second successive World Cup semi-final.

If there was a game that embodied the very best of Walker it was that performance at the Parc des Princes in April last year when he stared down Mbappe and never flinched. Now, Gareth Southgate will ask him to muzzle the world’s best player once again.

For 45 minutes in the French capital, Walker was a model of discipline and diligence, shadow to Mbappe and the nemesis of Neymar; in the second half, Pep Guardiola loosened the shackles, freeing up his full-backs like chess grandmasters might their bishops and trusting Walker to marry attacking rushes with restraint. What unfolded was a complete full-back display.

Mbappe left the field deflated. Long before then, Neymar had resolved there were slim pickings to be had down City’s right side and wandered off in search of less hostile territory. This was no fluke. Seven months later, Walker repeated the trick in a 2-1 group stage win over PSG at the Etihad.

Arguably the most invidious assignment in the game, facing Mbappe is enough to bring most defenders out in cold sweats. Yet Walker seems to approach these daunting tasks with a near-fear-free relish and, if anyone has the vaguest chance of getting in Mbappe’s head, it is England’s No 2.

Those who have watched Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary charting climber Alex Honnold’s extraordinary ascent up El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park without so much as a protective rope or harness in sight, will recall the MRI tests done on his brain. They revealed Honnold’s amygdala – the part of the brain key to processing strong emotions like fear or pleasure – was almost impossible to stimulate.

Walker will have to use all the tools at his disposal to stop France's talismanic forward - GETTY IMAGES
Walker will have to use all the tools at his disposal to stop France's talismanic forward - GETTY IMAGES

Who knows what Walker’s brain goes through in these moments – that look of stony defiance could disguise a player enduring all manner of inner personal turmoil and requiring a steady supply of imodium – but he hides it well if that is the case.

Back in May, Guardiola rushed Walker back from injury after three weeks out because, well, there was no one else with the speed and particular skillset to tackle Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr. For 72 minutes, a severely patched-up Walker threw himself at the challenge with a furious intensity until his body finally gave out.

Barring shocks and disappointments, Southgate knew all roads would likely lead to a last-eight meeting with France and Mbappe so you can imagine his unease at the sight of Walker hobbling out of the Manchester derby in early October with a groin injury that required surgery.

Indeed, it is remarkable Walker even made the tournament and testament to his physique, iron will and the tireless work of the City first team physiotherapist Tom O’Malley, with whom the defender has a close relationship dating back to their time at Sheffield United together, that he is not only present in Qatar but fit and fully functioning.

A 57-minute run out against Wales and now a full game against Senegal will reassure the England manager that the closest thing anyone has at this tournament to a Mbappe cheat code is in decent shape.

What England are looking for from Walker on Mbappe is something akin to Ashley Cole’s performance at full-back against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal at Euro 2004, only with a better end result. Cole was outstanding in that quarter-final defeat in Lisbon, able to keep pace with Ronaldo in the first instance but smart, savvy and skilled enough to suffocate his opponent while oxygenating his own team’s performance.

Walker and Mbappe face off in an international friendly in 2017, which France won 3-2 - REUTERS
Walker and Mbappe face off in an international friendly in 2017, which France won 3-2 - REUTERS

Walker will need all of his wiles, so many of which have been cultivated under Guardiola, to stymie the influence of Mbappe: tactical intelligence, positional sense, emotional resilience, counter-attack deterrence. And, yes, no doubt at times, that almost cartoonish pace of his could prove vital, particularly if France’s talisman opts to bomb it down the left.

But this is the point about Walker: he is so much more than the mere speed merchant some typecast him as. The simple reality is you do not survive for six seasons in a serial winning machine managed by Guardiola if pace is the only thing in your locker. Yet Walker is remarkably philosophical on that subject and has never sought to underplay the importance of his speed.

Interviewing him last year, he asked, in very simple but effective terms, if Trent Alexander-Arnold would be the same player without his range of passing or Kevin De Bruyne without his spatial awareness. “Of course they wouldn’t,” he said. “Everyone has different strings to their bow. So my pace is a little joker card I have up my sleeve that I can use when I need to use it to help the team.”

And he will need to use it – and so much more – at Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday.