It is a modern-day Entente Cordiale. Gareth Southgate and Didier Deschamps comprise a mutual admiration society. The England manager has been studying France’s successful 2018 World Cup campaign. His French counterpart approves of the way Southgate has overseen an improvement in England’s fortunes.
“I very much like Gareth,” he said. “We have met on a number of occasions and have talked about a number of things. He had a long and distinguished career and he is also a very good coach. He has enabled England to get some very good results over the years.”
Indeed, Deschamps believes he holds Southgate in higher esteem than many of the English. A soundtrack to the last World Cup was “Southgate, you’re the one.” By the time England lost 4-0 to Hungary in June, the message from the stands was different. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” was the verdict of many supporters.
If this World Cup with a series of successful calls - from backing Harry Maguire throughout to choosing Marcus Rashford against Wales to selecting Jordan Henderson against Senegal to preferring Phil Foden to Rashford on the left in the last 16 - has suggested Southgate actually has a sure touch, he also has a supporter in a World Cup winner. “If I am understood correctly, not everyone appreciates him so much in his own country,” Deschamps said.
He does. Asked to assess England’s weaknesses, Deschamps replied: “They don’t have any.” It sounded a compliment and perhaps their fondness for one another is understandable. There are some similarities in terms of profile among players of the same generation. Each was a leader, a footballer made better by his thoughtful, analytical personality and capacity to read the game, even if Deschamps, as France’s World Cup-winning captain, achieved more with the armbands both tended to wear than Southgate, Middlesbrough’s League Cup-winning skipper.
As a manager, neither is an instinctive attacker or indelibly associated with a particular philosophy, though their sides have been prolific in Qatar. Over his years in charge of his country, each has used a back four at times, a back three at others.
England can hope the parallels continue. Under Deschamps, France reached a final of a European Championships and then went on to win the subsequent World Cup. Now England’s Euro 2020 runners-up face the reigning champions in a quarter-final.
Hugo Lloris, who lifted the trophy four years ago, sees England as potential champions now. “There is a real progression and I believe this team is getting more mature and ready to compete for trophies,” the France captain said. “They were a little bit unlucky at the last Euros. They got very close but they are here to win.”
Lloris is one of the Anglophiles in the French squad. After a decade in London, his younger daughter and son were born in England. His two daughters attend an English school. No foreigner has made more appearances for Tottenham and a meeting of two footballing nations could boil down to a duel contested at Hotspur Way training ground.
The captains are Tottenham teammates. At club level, Harry Kane is vice-captain to Lloris.
“We have a very strong relationship,” said the goalkeeper. “We have been playing together for about nine years now so we know each other very well both on and off the pitch. I only have positive things to say about Harry, he is a very important player for the team, the club and for the England team as well. He is a real leader, he is an example for his teammates and he is a top player. He has been decisive for his club and very often he makes the difference.”
Their battle could extend to a shootout. Kane scored his only penalty against Lloris in a match, during a 3-2 France win in 2017, and the goalkeeper reflected: “Harry has the ability to shoot anywhere, it can be on my right, my left, in the middle. He is one of the best probably in this aspect of the game.”
Possibly the best player in the world, however, will be found in the French forward line. Kylian Mbappe’s World Cup has produced five goals and two assists, even though he was limited to a 27-minute cameo in the defeat to Tunisia.
He set up Olivier Giroud’s record-breaking 52nd France goal in the 3-1 win over Poland and yet, remarkably, Deschamps’ verdict was that he could do better.
“I’m sure England will have prepared to face Kylian, as our previous opponents did, but he is in a position to make the difference,” he said. “Even in the last match when he didn’t have his best match, he didn’t show his top form compared to previous games, he was still decisive. We have other players that can be dangerous as well and that helps us not to be over-dependent on Kylian.
“But Kylian is Kylian, and he always will be. He has that capacity to make the difference at any moment in the match.”
And that could be the difference between Southgate and Deschamps. After the compliments, the shared sense of respect, comes the reality one will be frustrated and one elated at the Al Bayt on Saturday. “It’s a winner-takes-all match,” added the France manager. “One of us is going to be happy. One of us is going to be going home.”