831 players, 32 teams and four matches per day – following the football World Cup can get a little overwhelming. For the next month, The Indian Express will cut through the clutter and handpick the biggest storyline of the day every morning.
England vs France (Quarterfinal)
12.30 am (Sunday), Al Bayt Stadium
Much of the build-up to the blockbuster quarterfinal encounter between England and France – two teams brimming with individual talent – has been focused on one man: Kylian Mbappe.
The prolific Paris Saint-Germain forward is in mercurial form as the tournament’s highest goalscorer with five goals. He has looked sharp on and off the ball, and his match-winning brace against Poland in the round of 16 would have the English defence worried.
Expectations are that England coach Gareth Southgate will likely look to manage Mbappe by moving to a back three with two wing backs, his preferred defensive shape against teams that like to contest possession. In doing so, however, they would either have to sacrifice an attacker – an unlikely alternative given the lack of a second striker option – or sacrifice a midfielder, falling into a 3-4-2-1 formation.
The latter option could, however, be a grave underestimation of the source of Mbappe’s powers: the supply from midfield.
Despite having a squad stacked with talent, there were question marks over France due to key injuries to Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante in midfield, with coach Didier Descahmps having to go to a largely untested trio in the middle of the park.
At the base is Aurelien Tchouameni, the 22-year-old who has just signed for Real Madrid in a deal that can rise to €100 million. The promising midfielder has played with maturity far beyond his years in his few months in the Spanish capital – a big step up from Monaco, where his breakthrough performances led to interest from Europe’s elite – but he was yet to gel with the national team.
From the moment France’s title-defence kicked off against Australia, however, Tchouameni has looked in remarkably sound touch.
Deschamps has shown so much confidence in Tchouameni that when France look more expansive, he is often the only player forming a screen in front of the centre backs, the only body in midfield to deal with a potential counterattack. And on top of his enforcing ability, he has been brilliant in stitching play between the back line and forward line, with 95 percent passing success rate.
Tchouameni’s partner in defensive midfield has been Adrien Rabiot, who has played a bit-part role in central midfield, as well as wide on the left, similar to that played by Blaise Matuidi for Deschamps in 2018. Rabiot’s positioning, dropping deep when required, and pressing high to latch onto an error or win the ball high up the pitch, has been crucial in dictating France’s play out of possession, and with the ball, he has been solid without making mistakes.
But Deschamps’ biggest creative spark in midfield has been Antoine Griezmann. Long considered one of the attacking players that can take the reins from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to be the best in the world, his deeper midfield role has shown his importance to France without any goals and just one assist.
Griezmann has been clever and unselfish for the majority of his performances. He drops deep into midfield when Rabiot is high and wide to support Tchouameni, acknowledges the absence of Kante and tries to win the ball higher up the pitch, and when he’s in space in between the lines, he’s able to execute the crucial pass into the likes of Mbappe, Giroud and Dembele. He has already created 15 chances, and averages 3.8 key passes per game.
Formation is not the be-all, end-all of matching up with France in midfield. England can play five defenders and three attackers and still compete, by making some tweaks – asking a forward to drop into midfield, or a defender to advance. Either way, the possible matchups make this game one of the best matchups of the World Cup.
Jude Bellingham – who has shone in Qatar – taking on Tchouameni when England advance. Declan Rice dealing with Griezmann when France advance. Mbappe being managed by Walker and possibly also Trippier. Harry Kane dragging Raphael Varane and Dayot Upamecano out of position to create space.
For England, whichever system they play, an emphasis on trying to control Mbappe could be fatal, because cutting his power off at the supply, in midfield, will prove to be just as crucial.