England have been planning for Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final with France for two years, and have been giving consideration to tackling Kylian Mbappe by pinning him back with England’s own attacking strengths. Gareth Southgate had a 9am presentation on the world champions the morning after the late win over Senegal, with FA head of coaching Tim Dittmer detailing a number of key points like the thinking of Didier Deschamps and tactical choices depending on opponent.
The England staff have been working on that resolutely since, with assistant Steve Holland believing this is a genuine “50-50” game. Southgate’s second-in-command also described Jude Bellingham as “unique” and possessing every ingredient, with his introduction to midfield amplifying how other young attackers have gone up a level since Euro 2020.
It is naturally the question of how to deal with Mbappe that has framed most of Southgate’s thinking over this week. Holland compared the task to trying to stop Lionel Messi with Chelsea ahead of the 2011/12 Champions League semi-final against Barcelona.
“I think there are a handful of players on the planet that you need to consider special attention to,” Southgate’s assistant said. “Messi has been one and probably still is. You’d have to put Mbappe in that kind of category. We do need to look at trying to avoid leaving ourselves in situations where he is as devastating as we’ve all seen. We have to try and find a way of avoiding that.”
Holland similarly pointed to a discussion he had with former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho over this exact issue. The challenge that time was Messi, but the dilemma was dealing with the Argentine could negate Cristiano Ronaldo’s own attributes.
“I remember having a conversation with Mourinho about it a long time ago, when he was with Real Madrid. They were playing Barcelona and they had Ronaldo. [Dani] Alves would be the right back for Barcelona and flying forwards in attack. [Mourinho] would play a soldier against him to try to stop him, but then of course you don’t get any threat from your team from the soldier as you’re stopping somebody, you’re not actually hurting them. Then he would try to play Ronaldo against him directly, one against one, because Alves was fantastic going forward but maybe not quite as good defensively as a consequence.
“There is always a plus and a minus to every one. It’s that cat and mouse of, ‘Yes, we have still got to try to deal with him,’ but we also have to try to exploit the weakness that his super strength delivers.
“Trying to adapt your team to cover for that while still trying to create your own problems is the challenge. We won’t just be looking to stop a player… Our players are just as likely to cause France trouble as Mbappe would be to us. We have to find that balance.”
One of those players is Bellingham, who Holland believes has gone to a different dimension as a player.
“He’s unique. When you’re categorising really top players – I was lucky enough in eight years at Chelsea to experience a few of those – there are the physical attributes, there are the technical attributes. We’ve talked about Messi and those special techniques that make you special. My experience would be that what makes the top, top ones is the mentality – the self-belief, the confidence, the drive, the ambition every day to push and be competitive. There were a few at Chelsea during my time that I felt were always there every time in training. [Ashley] Cole, [Frank] Lampard, [Didier] Drogba, [John] Terry. There were others: players who perhaps weren’t super gifted physically or even super gifted technically – although on a high level – but the mental aspect of it took them to a different level of performance.
“Jude has those attributes. There has been an evolution physically over the last 12 months. We watch every match he plays, either live or by going over the footage. We know him really well, and there has definitely been an evolution physically because he is still developing. It has taken him to another level.
“There are only three things you can do in football: stop goals, make goals, score goals. That’s how you contribute. Jude can do all of those things. And, recently, he has begun to score goals, which is the bit that makes the biggest players big. It’s a match-winning ability that he is adding to his game.
“One or two of our younger forwards, there has definitely been an evolution so they are more consistent, have more productivity at this level – not just a good level but at the highest level, international football, major tournaments.”
While Holland has become renowned as the “bad cop” among the England squad, with Kalvin Phillips joking about how he kept them grounded, the assistant says it is more about stressing to them that the only achievement is victory.
“It’s about the consistency of performance week in, week out, eight months, every three days, pushing yourselves to be consistent and hit those levels. The messaging with the England team is always that. Whenever we’ve hit one particular level or achievement, the message very simply is, ‘We’ve achieved nothing yet. We need to refocus quickly and then on to the next.’ I think that humility is decisive in any top team.”
Holland did nevertheless praise the growth of the team.
“The experience in the group is certainly as strong as I can ever remember it. I think you do rely on that in these moments. Firstly from a management perspective and on the bench, we’ve lived these moments now. Are we excited about being in a quarter-final? Of course we are. We respect completely the achievement that is. But when you’ve just been to a final and a semi-final, it feels a little bit different to the first quarter-final. I’m not being arrogant there. That is the fact of the matter: it’s not enough. We want more, we’ve done more, we want to have those days again.
“It is an experienced team, still quite a young team, but those players are gaining experience now and I think navigating those moments, like the [Euro 2020] semi-final against Denmark, where there’s a lot of expectation on playing at home. We go 1-0 down for the first time in the tournament and that’s one of those moments where you’re thinking, ‘Okay, where are we here, what’s the response?’
“Maybe in the past we would have fallen apart a little bit and started to chase the game and suddenly you’re 2-0 down and you’re in trouble. But within six minutes we’re 1-1 and back on track. I think that is one example of experiences the group has been through. It does make us stronger. It gives you that sense of familiarity, and when it does occur in the game, actually it’s, ‘We’ve been here before, this can happen, we know what to do, we need to stay calm.’ I feel we are as prepared and experienced now as we have ever been to manage those moments.
“It’s not a guarantee because of the level of the opponent. It’s a 50-50 game in my eyes. If you’re playing inferior opposition and you play well, you get the result. That’s the challenge: we could play well and still not get the result. It’s 50-50 with special players who can suddenly produce something out of nothing. But I think the team are really well equipped for the journey that this quarter-final could be. It could be a long night. I feel we’re as ready as we’ve ever been to navigate that.”
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