It speaks to Gareth Southgate’s confidence in this England side who had decided on his formation and starting XI for Monday morning’s France match. While so many other squad members worried about Kylian Mbappe and wondered whether Southgate would agonize over a big choice on how to approach him, the coach had already made up his mind some time ago.
This came after a 9am presentation on France by FA head coach Steve Dittmer who just confirmed what the England manager was already thinking. Southgate is now so confident in his team that he doesn’t feel he has to compromise for a player like Mbappé as he did before.
This only helped focus the week’s work. The key for coaches ever since, and especially on the day before the game, has been to distill all the crucial points into messages players can easily digest.
Assistant Steve Holland says the challenge is players are so full of confidence that “when they come out of the tunnel on game day, they’ve been through a foundation and process that they believe has a chance.”
The England team believe they have much more than one chance. The view within the pitch – from the players to the staff – is that they have never been in such a good position to face a game like this in terms of form, mentality and experience.
That’s okay, because they’ve probably never faced such an ordeal in the Southgate era.
A match against the world champions, in this sort of form, goes far beyond Croatia in the 2018 semi-finals, Germany at Wembley in the Euro 2020 round of 16 and Italy in the final. It’s also a mental test, as well as a football test.
England have never eliminated a top-flight team from a tournament if the game was not at home. It’s that last test to pass, to prove that you really have what it takes to win this World Cup.
If England beat France, there would be no more doubts, no more questions about the caliber of this team.
They first have to prove that their solutions to the world champion challenge actually work, of course.
It’s perhaps not just about the best team in the world, of course. They are also facing the best player in the world, the star of the World Cup so far. This is why Southgate’s first decision is in itself so instructive.
The coach and his staff have already spoken of Mbappé as “a handful of players on the planet who need to be given special attention”.
To add to that, the 23-year-old is evidently in special shape. While his talents are devastating under normal circumstances, those of the French squad speak of Mbappé rising to the next level for him as well. The system and the environment make him feel “at home” with the team and himself. He’s put Mbappe in the kind of mood where he’s not only willing to try anything, but in the shape to pull it off. The audacity of his first goal against Poland was the ultimate statement. Jordan Pickford talked about it in catchy and humorous terms.
“His conclusion on that first one when he reversed it into the best containers is a very good result, but everyone knows what a great person he is.”
Southgate’s approach, however, also shows how much the manager now knows this team.
In previous campaigns, the instinct would have been to go for a three-man defensive line to protect that defence. It would have been safety first at the expense of the excellent array of British aggressors and Southgate’s alleged pragmatism.
Now, all suggestions from the team are that the coach will stay with the same team that played against Senegal. Southgate was also keen to say on the eve of the quarter-finals that his “preference has always been the 4-3-3”. He went on to add that, in Kyle Walker, England “obviously have a player who can take him on like anyone else”.
However, it won’t just be Manchester City’s right-back on Mbappé. This is where the rise of Bukayo Saka and the resurgence of Jordan Henderson are so important. While the Liverpool captain can make use of his extensive experience and excessive work-rate, Saka offers a tactical discipline that none of England’s other forwards possess. The likelihood is that there will be times when these three triple up on Mbappe, before releasing Saka.
It likewise speaks to Southgate’s increased confidence in this team that he’s willing to try this one.
“If you had asked me four years ago if we were ready enough, I’m not sure,” said the manager. “Now, I feel differently about it, and that’s because we have evidence over a long period of results.”
There are still many risks if England opt for a 4-3-3 formation, of course. The manager himself has spoken of the need not to allow Antoine Griezmann ‘the run of the park’, as there is a clear danger that his vibrant new role behind Olivier Giroud could occupy Harry Maguire and John Stones sufficiently to sideline them. The way France use Ousmane Dembele and Mbappé on the flanks could occupy the full-backs in the meantime. This would have the double effect of diluting England’s overlapping ability and their danger to the outside, which is one of their main angles of attack.
This, however, is precisely the cat-and-mouse game Holland was referring to. This is why England has spent most of the week working on transitions which in turn stall France. This is the consequence of that presentation just six hours after returning from the match against Senegal. He was about Didier Deschamps’ way of thinking, the decisions he makes based on specific oppositions and game states and potential gaps in the French squad.
Declan Rice has already been very vocal about how England players themselves have “seen some weaknesses in them that we can try to exploit”. The midfielder meanwhile says his own team have been “impeccable” and “silenced the critics”.
This rise was noted in the French camp. Some want to silence that speech. Others respect it. They see it as an even game. Similarly, the England team see it as 50-50.
That’s Southgate’s approach for this quarter-final. No game at this level compromises anywhere. No match at this level comes without periods of serious opposition pressure.
“There will be times when France will have spells in the game and we have to accept that we are not going to stop them from creating a chance and we are not going to stop them from having a spell in the game,” said Southgate. “But we continue to be brave when these things happen.
“In the big matches, in the end, the great players come forward and can be decisive.”
Southgate has made up its mind. Now he is in the hands of the players. Such calls could go a long way in deciding which hands the World Cup itself will end up in.