It is the decisive question of the quarter-finals of the World Cup between England and France: how to stop Kylian Mbappé?
If Gareth Southgate and his players can find the solution – and are able to implement it – then they will have taken a huge step towards the semi-finals.
But it’s a question that many of France’s previous opponents have not answered.
Mbappé has never lost a World Cup or Euro game where he started. He scored nine goals and recorded three assists in those 13 games. It’s a daunting record and a testament to his talent.
And Lionel Messi? Cristiano Ronaldo? Mbappe he is the superstar of the next era. He has already scored as many World Cup goals as the Argentine and more than the Portuguese – and he doesn’t turn 24 until two days after the final.
He has the World Cup winners medal that even today’s greats have eluded. And he is motivated to win more. “I came here to win this World Cup,” he said after scoring twice against Poland in the round of 16. It would be a birthday party.
Will England spoil the party? Here, we take a closer look at the challenge facing the Southgate side on Saturday and how they might hope to contain the red-hot Parisian.
“It’s burning my legs!”
“Speed, Move, Finish… It’s got it all!” Poland’s Matt Cash was left spinning trying to score Mbappé in the last 16 and provided fascinating insight into the defense against the Frenchman.
“He put two in the top corner, one on the left and one on the right. I didn’t know whether to go down or go tight. When I went tight he just turned behind. When he gets the ball, he stops and moves, it’s the fastest thing I’ve ever seen.
“When he gets you up and moving, he does it really well. He drops his shoulder, goes short then long. I did all I could. When it was one-on-one I thought I did well against him…I folded afternoon watching his clips and I knew it was going to be a tough test – in real life it’s burning my legs. That’s the difference!”
A sentiment echoed by Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz: “There is no recipe [to stop him]. Nobody knows the recipe, no coach knows the recipe to stop Mbappé as he is.”
Double up on Mbappé
With Antoine Griezmann playing against goal Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele on the right wing, Mbappé is the lethal threat on France’s left.
Whether he’s running down the touchline to get around his marker or cutting inside with his favored right foot, it’s a role he relishes for his country – and he’s made it clear he’d rather be at Paris St-Germain than play the half.
France coach Didier Deschamps bases his side’s style of play on Mbappé.
One need only look at their passing net against Poland to see how France channel the bodies and the ball towards him as often as possible. “Their game plan is to get the ball to the wings and when it’s one-on-one you have to try and stop it,” said Cash.
This puts Mbappe on a collision course with Kyle Walker, who will play at right-back or right-centre at Al Bayt Stadium, depending on England’s formation.
If Southgate goes with a back three – and that has been the manager’s go-to system for big games – then Walker will have a hand on that wing in the form of Kieran Trippier.
Doubling up Mbappe looks like a smart move. “There are a handful of players on the planet that you need to pay close attention to,” England deputy boss Steve Holland said this week. Mbappe is definitely one of them.
But if Walker is exposed one-on-one, his pace will be a key weapon in his arsenal.
Mbappe was recorded at 35km/h in this World Cup and reached 35.6km/h in the Champions League this season. He is very fast, but three seasons ago Walker hit 37.8km/h in the Premier League.
The Englishman has hit 34.4km/h so far in Qatar and, although he’s now 32, he can still put the turbo on. “Kyle Walker is as fast as Mbappe,” Cash said when asked about his judgment on the fight. “If anyone wants to stop Mbappe, Kyle Walker is the man. He’s quick too.”
The only concern will be whether Walker’s recent groin surgery will impact when he’s called upon to do those super-fast sprints.
But it’s not just about who is faster: a key element of this competition is Walker’s positive past experiences against Mbappe. And those previous encounters could alter the Frenchman’s approach altogether.
On the four occasions they have faced each other, Walker has never been seriously exposed by Mbappe.
It’s a great statement and an extremely impressive detail in the defender’s CV.
Mbappe has been in the winning team twice in those matches, but has never scored from Walker’s side of the pitch or escaped his clutches for a big break.
Their first meeting was the most recent meeting between England and France in 2017. A summer friendly, which saw the 18-year-old Monaco forward demonstrate his incredible potential, setting up Ousmane Dembele for a late winner after hitting the crossbar himself.
Trippier and John Stones are worth pointing out were given a torrid moment by the teenager that day. Mbappe tripped Trippier backwards in the penalty area with a drive run, while Stones spun as Mbappe crashed into the woodwork and struggled to grab the youngster all evening.
Both England players have since gone on to become better defenders – the problem is that Mbappé developed into an absolute elite striker in those five years.
Walker was a half-time substitute in that match, but his real clashes with Mbappe came in 2021 – a Champions League semi-final in April and two group stage matches the following season.
Manchester City won 2-1 in Paris in the first leg of the final four. Mbappe didn’t get many changes from Walker, which led to a pass to spark a dangerous City attack that saw Phil Foden come close, and his finest moments in the match came when he switched to the right flank.
Mbappe missed the second leg through injury as City progressed to the final, so the next battle between the pairs was in September of that year. This time it was PSG who won in Paris, with Mbappé helping set up both goals, but only when he pulled away from Walker.
PSG’s first goal came from a cut by Mbappe from the right wing and the second was thanks to a one-two punch that played Messi from a centre-forward position, when Ruben Dias gave him too much space.
Mbappé scored himself at the Etihad two months later in the reverse fixture, scoring from the right side of the box after Messi’s cross came at him through a crowd of bodies. This was in the second half when the Frenchman looked for an alternative attack route after being restricted again early in the game by Walker.
In the first half, Walker produced an immense show of speed to close Mbappé and put him out of bounds after he appeared to be clean.
Walker himself had a hand in a City goal in that match, with his cross deflected off Gabriel Jesus for Raheem Sterling to build in a 2–1 win. This is a reminder of the threat Walker can cause if Mbappe doesn’t track him down. The Netherlands this week hinted at England’s awareness and that they need to “find the right balance” between fending off France’s threats and using their own.
The intriguing conclusion of the clashes between Walker and Mbappé, however, is that the Frenchman has often been forced to change position on the field to get away from the defender.
His touchmaps from party games illustrate the point.
Mbappe against Walker and Trippier? The Frenchman may prefer the chances of him over the channel being watched by Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire.
“It would be very naive of us to focus exclusively on Mbappé”
The potential for Mbappe to wander to the forefront if he has no luck against Walker underscores the point that England will need a holistic approach to defend against him. It won’t just be about his one-on-one battle with Walker. The entire backline will have to be activated by his movements, especially those players who don’t have the recovery speed of the right-back.
Cash has highlighted the danger of the counterattack and this will surely enter Southgate’s mind when considering his options in midfield. England cannot give space behind or the French midfielders time to choose their pass.
If they are to be Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham again, then that trio will need to work hard to close passage ways towards Mbappe, but also Giroud and Griezmann, who can supply the main dangerous man.
“One of the really important things is to stop Giroud and Griezmann from serving because once they get the ball, Mbappé will get it in much more difficult areas,” Sky Sports’ Gary Neville told ITV.
“The guys in the centre, Henderson, Bellingham, Rice, Stones and Maguire, if they can stop that serve in that central area, it means Mbappe is receiving much less dangerous passes.”
That strategy is also a nod to the other threats France have on the pitch – and it would be risky to overlook the remarkable quality they possess besides Mbappé.
The injured Karim Benzema is a big loss, but newly crowned top scorer Giroud will keep the Stones and Maguire busy. Griezmann was described as “phenomenal” by Southgate last week, and in Dembele, France have a player who has outpaced Mbappé in the Champions League this season – 36km/h.
He’s a fearsome front four that commands respect. Overfocusing on one aspect will only create space and opportunity for others. “It would be very naïve of us to focus solely on Mbappe,” left-back Shaw said before the match.
If Mbappe gets through, England’s last line of defense will be Jordan Pickford. The goalkeeper has been in fine form for Everton and showed strong reactions against Senegal to keep a third consecutive clean sheet at this Sunday’s World Cup.
He wouldn’t thank his teammates if he were exposed to the thunderous shots Mbappé fired home from inside the box against Poland, but perhaps there is some more hope in his Premier League face-shot map this season.
Pickford has saved seven high-value shots to his left this season. It is there that Mbappé aims when he enters from the wing and shoots with his right foot on goal. Five of his seven Champions League goals this season have come in that area of the net.
Will we see more heroic deeds from the England No1 this weekend? He will probably have work to do, with France and Mbappé leading the World Cup rankings in shots.
Pickford’s goalkeeper, Walker’s one-on-one defence, back-line set-up, pressing and blocking in midfield… There is no answer to the big question. But Southgate hopes England can add up to find the collective solution to stop Mbappe on Saturday.