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K. Mbappé

Attack his flank and don't be afraid of a yellow card: England's guide to keeping Mbappe quiet

12:00 PM GMT+4 08/12/2022
Mbappe Walker Southgate GFX
The France star has been the Player of the Tournament at the World Cup so far, but that doesn't mean the Three Lions can't slow him down on Saturday

Kylian Mbappe’s peers view him as a once-in-a-generation talent. Bukayo Saka, the 21-year-old emerging superstar for England, chuckled when asked recently whether he could become the “next Mbappe” on the World Cup stage.

"Thank you for your compliment, but no, I think there's only one Kylian Mbappe,” Saka said of the France forward that he will meet in Saturday’s quarter-final.

It’s true. There is just one player who has scored nine World Cup goals before his 24th birthday: Mbappe. There is just one player who has scored 40 Champions League goals before his 24th birthday: Mbappe.

And when England play France with their World Cup hopes in the balance, they will be tracking one man more than any other: Mbappe.

"When he gets the ball, stops and moves, he’s the quickest thing I’ve ever seen,” marvelled Poland defender Matty Cash after Mbappe scored a brace to eliminate his nation in the last 16.

Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate would be naive to think he can completely eliminate Mbappe’s threat. Really, the only person who can stop the mercurial Paris Saint-Germain attacker is himself, and he appears to be too locked in at this tournament to produce any of petulant displays that occasionally plague him.

But England's manager can at least reflect on comments from current and former players who have observed Mbappe closely, as well as analyse England's strengths, to craft a blueprint for handling Les Bleus’ top player...

  • Kylian Mbappe Olivier Giroud celebrate World Cup

    Cut off Giroud and Griezmann

    Remember when Kylian Mbappe wouldn't let go of a childish feud with Olivier Giroud right before Euro 2020? That feels like an alternate universe.

    Now he's leaping into Giroud's arms and telling everyone the centre-forward gives him more openings than his team-mates at Paris Saint-Germain, which while perhaps true, is quite a statement considering PSG's frontline also includes Lionel Messi and Neymar.

    Point is, Mbappe currently loves playing off Giroud, whose strength is his hold-up play, with clever flicks and movement.

    Mbappe is also working well with attacking midfielder Antoine Griezmann, and as a result, France have scored nine goals in four World Cup matches to strike fear in England's defence ahead of this weekend's showdown.

    For the Three Lions, limiting Mbappe starts with limiting his closest team-mates and isolating him on the left wing. Giroud and Griezmann cannot be given time or space to find Mbappe running behind the back-four.

    “I played against Thierry Henry, the closest player to Mbappe,” ex-England international Gary Neville said on ITV. “One of the things that is really important is to stop the service into Giroud and Griezmann because once they receive the ball ,Mbappe is going to receive it in far more difficult areas.

    "The lads in the middle - [Jude] Bellingham, [Jordan] Henderson, [Declan] Rice, [John] Stones and [Harry] Maguire - if they can stop the service in that central area, it means Mbappe’s receiving far less dangerous passes.”

  • Kyle Walker Kylian Mbappe Manchester City PSG

    Attack down Mbappe’s side

    Among wingers in Europe’s top five leagues over the past 365 days, Mbappe ranks in the bottom 10 per cent in tackles, interceptions, blocks and touches in the defensive third. His heat map routinely carries bright splotches in the opposition half and a blank canvas in his own territory.

    In other words, he has little to no interest in tracking back.

    That’s not meant as a criticism of his talent (few wide players with his scoring ability carry much defensive work rate), but rather an indication of an area England may exploit.

    While it will be difficult to slow down Mbappe when France counter-attack, the Three Lions could also use the 23-year-old’s aggressiveness against him. They can counter the counter-attack, if you will, and push forward with pace down Mbappe’s flank knowing he probably won't provide resistance.

    France manager Didier Deschamps envisioned that this could be a problem in the knockout stages in Qatar, warning Mbappe through Telefoot that “at the highest level, we can’t afford to lose a player when we don’t have the ball”.

    England are hoarders of quality right-backs, and even with Reece James’ untimely injury, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold all carry a threat down Mbappe's side when play transitions from defence to attack. Of the three, Walker is likeliest to start after getting the nod against Senegal in the last 16.

    Neville told ITV that the Manchester City defender is better equipped than anyone else in the world to go step-for-step with Mbappe because of his renowned pace, and the former England right-back may not be far off.

    Walker is, for what it's worth, the closest thing to the motorised remedy that Poland striker Arkadiusz Milik prescribed for stopping Mbappe. “I think we’d need scooters to [stop him] because he’s so fast!” Milik joked.

    Recent injuries and age may prevent Walker from going a full 90 minutes, though, and if the Three Lions are chasing the game, it could be time to unleash the elite playmaking skill set of Alexander-Arnold to put maximum pressure on Mbappe’s wing.

    Alexander-Arnold and either Saka or Marcus Rashford running at tired French legs in the final 15 minutes? It could be the perfect recipe for Southgate.

  • Kylian Mbappe France World Cup fouled

    Be physical

    This section can alternatively be titled “Get Mbappe in his feelings”.

    Now, we must be clear that dangerous challenges on a generational star are unacceptable, and there’s a fine line England should not cross.

    But tactical fouling on the counter-attack is an absolute must. Mbappe cannot be allowed to have free runs at England’s backline. He’s legendary in those positions, and Harry Maguire and John Stones don't have the speed to catch him while sprinting towards their own goal.

    Plus, a stop-start encounter could have the second effect of keeping Mbappe from feeling comfortable on the ball, and a lack of chances as the game enters its final stages may spark frustration from the 23-year-old.

    For a cross-sport comparison, the concept is similar to how teams defended Mbappe's PSG kit sponsor Michael Jordan when the basketball legend was in his early years, with the NBA coining the term "Jordan Rules" to describe the effective hands-on defensive strategy that stymied his production.

    No England player has picked up a yellow card at the tournament thus far, meaning a caution wouldn't rule anyone out for the semi-final through suspension. The Three Lions have room to be aggressive without fearing long-term repercussions.

  • John Stones Harry Maguire England World Cup

    Communicate

    Ultimately, Mbappe is not any one player's responsibility.

    If he bags a hat-trick, it won't exclusively be the fault of Walker, Alexander-Arnold or Trippier marking him on the wing. It'll be the fault of an entire defence not working well enough together.

    "You always have to adapt because he is an outstanding player and a special talent," said Mbappe's Ligue 1 rival Benoit Badiashile of Monaco to the Mirror. “It is different from other strikers and the main thing is not to leave him any space.

    "You have to work as a team to defend against him during the game. This is something you work on in the week before the match where you collectively work on how to stop him."

    Focus and constant communication will be key, and those are qualities England can feel good about given the experience their defenders have of playing with one another at major tournaments.

    But then again, Mbappe is unlike any other opponent, and he fractures even the tightest of defensive units. Southgate could implement a perfect system for 89 minutes and then see the France star pounce on a loose ball in the box, weave past a marker and score a demoralising goal.

    Sometimes, greatness is inevitable. England must convince themselves that for one night in Qatar, it can be contained.