How can England stop Kylian Mbappe?

How can England stop Kylian Mbappe? - Kylian Mbappe scores France's second goal against Poland - Lee Smith/Reuters
How can England stop Kylian Mbappe? - Kylian Mbappe scores France's second goal against Poland - Lee Smith/Reuters

There is little to separate World Cup quarter-final opponents England and France collectively, but in Kylian Mbappe the holders possess the game's outstanding individual talent.

How England cope against possibly the best player in the world will determine their chances of reaching another tournament semi-final.

Gareth Southgate will hope Kyle Walker is the ideal adversary for Mbappe, but it remains to be seen if Walker will be deployed at right-back in a flat four or as a right-sided centre-half in a back five.

English clubs have enjoyed some success against PSG and Mbappe in the Champions League in recent seasons, although he is thriving in a different, left-sided role with France.

So how do England stop Mbappe sending them home from Qatar?

Pick the lesser of two evils

Mbappe has grown frustrated with being asked to play as a lone central striker for PSG, stretching defences in order to create space for Neymar and Lionel Messi. It is slightly strange to hear of a forward and goalscorer who does not want the No 9 role, but Mbappe's view is that he performs best working off a fulcrum such as Olivier Giroud.

With Giroud occupying centre-backs, Mbappe has settled into more of an orthodox left-wing role, looking to isolate his full-back and dribble past them at pace. His touch map across France's four World Cup games so far shows Mbappe is operating in a defined zone rather than floating across the attack.

While his starting position might be high and wide, Mbappe is still rolling inside once attacks develop and offering a goal threat, taking a whopping 21 shots in just four games. The vast majority of those shots are in the inside left slot, from where he scored twice against Poland.

No amount of tactical planning by England will reduce Mbappe's pace or rob him of his skill and ingenuity. We can say with some certainty that at some stage of Saturday's game he will beat Walker or his opposite number in a one-against-one.

As best as they can manage, England will have to pick their poison and encourage Mbappe to push the ball on the outside of Walker, who has the speed to cover. If Mbappe fires a shot into the far corner with his left foot or delivers a telling cross with his weaker side, then you hold your hands up. That's also what Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, and John Stones are there for.

What cannot be allowed to happen is Mbappe finding space on Walker's inside with a clear route to goal and the ball on his right foot. Granted, Poland were chasing the game and stretched when Mbappe scored his second goal on Sunday, but it demonstrated how defenders are beaten once they are outside the line of Mbappe.

How can England stop Kylian Mbappe? - Mbappe's second against Poland - ITV
How can England stop Kylian Mbappe? - Mbappe's second against Poland - ITV

Narrow back four instead of back five

The expectation pre-tournament was that Southgate would switch to a 3-4-3 once England faced more potent opponents, but that now looks in doubt given England's comfort with a back four.

It may be that England end up defending in a line of five regardless of the formation on paper, due to France's attacking left-back Theo Hernandez. His brother Lucas suffered a serious knee injury in their opening game against Australia, and is a more defensive full-back in the traditional mould.

The question for Southgate is whether he wants his right-sided attacker, likely Bukayo Saka or Phil Foden, to track Hernandez's runs forward or use a wing-back such as Kieran Trippier to play directly against him. Southgate will want to avoid Walker jumping out to Hernandez, opening up space for Mbappe.

It could be that England use a hybrid system, attacking in their usual shape but with Saka tracking back into a wing-back role when defending. France's right-back will be Benjamin Pavard or Jules Kounde, unlikely to pose much attacking threat, so England's left-sided forward can stay higher.

The danger with using a back three or five is offering France numerical advantages down the flanks, and offering Mbappe the gully of space behind Trippier. Using a narrow back four across the width of the penalty area means England's wide-player can double up with Walker, or a midfielder such as Jordan Henderson can offer him cover on his inside. We could even see Walker, Henderson and the right-winger bracketing Mbappe as a trio.

Kieran Trippier - Michael Regan/Getty Images
Kieran Trippier - Michael Regan/Getty Images

Avoid coming to a standstill

Facing Mbappe poses defenders a dilemma: do they physically engage with touch-tight marking and try to quell the threat at source, or drop away and try to slow the attack down?

Squeezing up on Mbappe brings the risk of being embarrassed with a piece of skill, or him spinning in behind, especially because Giroud and Antoine Griezmann's lack of pace encourages a high line.

However, standing off brings the risk of Mbappe building up a head of steam with a dribble and playing the game facing your goal.

There are dozens of fast attackers around the world, but what separates Mbappe is his ability to go from top speed, to a standstill, and then back again over the space of a few yards. Thierry Henry was also a master at this, putting his foot on the ball and freezing defenders before pushing it past them when their legs were stuck in the turf.

Strange as it sounds, for all Mbappe's devastating speed, Walker and his team-mates need to be most wary of the moments when he is standing still and try to keep their feet moving.

Use France's biggest strength against them

"Every disadvantage has its advantage," said Johan Cruyff, and while France's left side is the source of so much menace it could also be an area of vulnerability.

Left-back Hernandez will push forward to free up Mbappe, which could leave space for Saka, Foden or Rashford to exploit on the counter-attack. Mbappe will remain high and be allowed to 'cheat' defensively by Didier Deschamps, which places extra strain on Hernandez and left-sided central midfielder Adrien Rabiot, who is prone to lapses in concentration.

France's left-sided centre-back Dayot Upamecano is talented but erratic at times. That side looks a far more fruitful avenue for England to exploit than France's right, where Raphael Varane, Kounde or Pavard and defensive midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni are stationed.

Star players like Mbappe are permitted to play outside of the team's structure but whether France are strong enough to support that is an open question against the best teams.