How do you stop a force such as Kylian Mbappé? It is the question that will have been whirring around the mind of Gareth Southgate since England teed up a quarter-final date with France and will no doubt consume Kyle Walker, who is likely to have the thankless task of trying to contain the forward on Saturday. Mbappé’s touch maps and goals tally at this tournament suggest Walker is going to be in for a busy evening.
It is a conundrum Matty Cash no longer has to concern himself with but one he spent a good while thinking about before Poland’s last-16 defeat by France on Sunday. “I spent the afternoon watching his clips and I knew it was going to be a tough test, but when he gets the ball, stops and moves, he’s the quickest thing I’ve ever seen,” the Aston Villa defender, says. “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.”
What is the difference between mapping out how to halt Mbappé while studying footage of him and trying to stifle the real thing on the pitch? “I’m watching the videos while lying in bed,” Cash says, laughing. “In real life he’s burning my legs –that’s the difference. It’s a massive difference. When he stands you up and moves he does it really well. He drops the shoulder, goes short then long. I got into a couple of races with him and I did all right. You look over your shoulder and he’s there.”
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Mbappé is enjoying himself in Qatar, where a beaming smile is seemingly permanently etched across his face. He is on track to win the Golden Boot, clocking up speeds of 35kmh and generally tormenting defenders. He rattled in two goals against Poland to take his tally at this tournament to five and to nine in 11 World Cup appearances, surpassing Pelé’s 57-year record for the most World Cup goals before the age of 24, a birthday Mbappé celebrates two days after the final. He has scored as many World Cup goals as Lionel Messi and one more than Cristiano Ronaldo, who have played at five finals. It is why Hugo Lloris says limits do not apply to Mbappé, a player “capable of breaking all records”.
Olivier Giroud, who broke France’s goalscoring record in victory against Poland, said some of England’s players predicted meeting France in the quarter-finals. In the coming days Cash says he will probably speak to Jack Grealish, his former Villa teammate, and Declan Rice about getting to grips with Mbappé.
“They don’t need any tips,” he says. “They’ve got Kyle Walker who can play right-back and he’s probably just as quick as Mbappé. He knows Mbappé is amazing but Kyle is England’s best right-back. So if anyone’s going to stop Mbappé, Kyle is the man to stop him. I said before that [Raheem] Sterling was my toughest opponent – when we faced Manchester City, he was brilliant. Sterling’s rapid, but Mbappé is electric.”
Mbappé, understandably, left Cash in a quandary at times and he quickly discovered there is often no right answer. “I didn’t know whether to drop off or go tight and when I went tight he just spun in behind. I did everything I could.
“When it was one v one I thought I’d done OK against him, he didn’t really run me once. 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.”
For Walker and England, the task is clear and when Cash gets home his first job will be to clear some space on his walls. Four days before duelling with Mbappé and departing with his No 10 shirt, Cash snaffled another memento. Emiliano Martínez, the Argentina goalkeeper and Cash’s Villa clubmate, arranged for Cash to get Messi’s shirt after Poland’s defeat by Argentina.
“Playing against Messi and Mbappé in the space of four days is a learning curve,” he says. “It’s a boy’s dream to play in a major tournament against these types of players, and to get their shirts.”