England v France XIs: Back three? How to neuter Mbappe? Our experts’ verdicts

After a crushing 3-0 win over Senegal in the last 16, this is where the World Cup starts getting serious for Gareth Southgate and England.

A quarter-final tie against France, the reigning world champions and armed with arguably the sport’s greatest player in Kylian Mbappe, promises to be the sternest test of their credentials as England seek to reach the last four in three successive major tournaments for the first time in their history.

It also represents Southgate’s greatest tactical challenge since last summer’s European Championship final. Should he switch to a back three? Does he need the extra energy of Mason Mount? What attacking blend is best suited to cause France problems in defence?

Our experts assess these key questions and reveal their preferred XIs for Saturday’s game.

Dominic Fifield: Stick with what has worked

This is supposed to be the moment Gareth Southgate reverts to his back three.

This is the kind of daunting knockout tie, against the reigning champions, which calls for Kyle Walker as the right-sided centre-half with Kieran Trippier outside him, doubling up to snuff out the threat of Kylian Mbappe, and Luke Shaw marshalling Ousmane Dembele on the opposite flank as best he can.

This is the kind of match in which the centre-halves might be properly exposed, so the head coach naturally flits back into semi-cautious mode.

Except that would feel such a shame. England have been so thrilling as an attacking unit to date, their approach even liberating Jordan Henderson to accompany Jude Bellingham on those galloping runs upfield in the last 16 win over Senegal, that sacrificing one of those forward thinkers in pursuit of some defensive certainty would prompt a pang of regret.

Jude Bellingham (left) and Jordan Henderson formed a formidable partnership against Senegal (Photo: Liu Lu/VCG via Getty Images)

So be bold and stick with what has worked so far. Trust Walker’s pace and powers of recovery. Pin your hopes on the joint-most prolific attack in the tournament to date, with eight different scorers and a rare depth of quality to call upon off the bench. And be confident the side that eased to victory over the African champions can also unsettle a French team who are far from watertight themselves.

Southgate will probably go with his gut and he has been proven right virtually at every turn to date, so there should be no quibbling. But the hope is that, even against the best, England retain their enterprising spirit.

Jack Pitt-Brooke: Let’s cause them problems

This is the same team that beat Senegal, and it isn’t even a completely unfamiliar formation. In that last-16 game on Sunday, England would often move into this back three in the first half, especially when they were trying to get the ball wide, pushing the two wing-backs up. Most people would expect Kieran Trippier to come in as the right wing-back but I wonder if keeping Bukayo Saka there might be the perfect way to cause France problems down their left.

This formation also gives you the three-man midfield of Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson that should be able to live with Adrien Rabiot, Aurelien Tchouameni and Antoine Griezmann, while also being a potent counter-attacking weapon in its own right. If England needs options from the bench, they can always take off a midfielder for Mason Mount, Marcus Rashford or Jack Grealish. If they want to shut the game down further, they can put Trippier on at wing-back.

Maybe I am reading too much into Southgate’s selections against Senegal, but it did feel to me like it might be to prepare for facing France in this way.

Daniel Taylor: Recall Trippier to crowd out Mbappe

All tournament, I’ve wanted to see England operate the wing-back system that helped them reach the World Cup semi-finals four years ago. So far, Gareth Southgate has preferred a straight back four. Now, though, there is Operation Mbappe to consider and perhaps this is the time to bring Kieran Tripper back into the team with Kyle Walker playing behind him as the right-sided centre-back.

Trippier can help crowd out Mbappe and Walker won’t be far away. As Steve Holland, England’s assistant manager, said this week, Mbappe is one of the few players in the world where special measures are required. The hard part is who to leave out. But, hey, we managers have to make tough decisions and I will make it up to Jordan Henderson another time.

Oliver Kay: I’ve always preferred 4-3-3

It ain’t broken. No need to fix it. I know there’s a strong case for switching to a back three to try to contain the threat of Kylian Mbappe, but I wouldn’t do it. I’ve always preferred 4-3-3 for this team and I like the balance in midfield with Jordan Henderson alongside Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham.

If there’s a need to twist and put Mason Mount or even James Maddison in midfield later in the game, or even to drop Phil Foden into a deeper role, then those are good options to have.

The one concern is about whether the defense would be strong enough to withstand the threat of Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele from wide areas. The defenders have performed well in all four games — John Stones has been outstanding for the third consecutive tournament — but I do worry slightly that they might get exposed here. Sticking with 4-3-3 means they’re a defender short, but it should also give England a better chance of competing in midfield and playing the game on their own terms.

Sebastian Stafford-Bloor: England must congest the French left

What do you do about Kylian Mbappe? No doubt he’s able to take over any game against any opponent, but there really isn’t a silver bullet solution for all that ability and pace. England’s best option is to settle into a back three, employing Kyle Walker’s speed as the right centre-back, then try to plug the left-hand side with Kieran Trippier as a wing-back and Jordan Henderson in a deeper midfield role.

Whether that works is another matter, but it’s clear that nobody can be left one-on-one with Mbappe and that England need to congest that side of the pitch, where he, Adrien Rabiot, Theo Hernandez and Antoine Griezmann did so much damage to Poland in the previous round.

The only other selection issue is up front. Raheem Sterling’s status is unclear and he’s had an extremely difficult few days, so Marcus Rashford is picked to pivot around Harry Kane. Kane will likely play quite deep in this system, so there needs to be another No 9-ish type ahead of him, rather than just an attacking midfielder or winger.

Stuart James: Don’t hand France the initiative

There will be a temptation to revert to a back five/three-man central defense. Please don’t, Gareth.

Yes, France’s forward line is a massive upgrade on anything England have come up against in this World Cup so far and, naturally, Kylian Mbappe is a huge concern (I’m not ignoring Ousmane Dembele on the other flank either). But I genuinely worry England will lose a lot more than they gain by taking out a midfielder and playing another centre-back.

I start to picture those matches against Italy in the Euro 2020 final and Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final – England retreating, surrendering possession, no control of the game, little threat going forward, and that nagging sense that it’s a matter of time before the opposition score (as a reminder, in those games Croatia had 22 shots to England’s 11, Italy had 19 to England’s six). Why hand France the initiative?

The strength lies in what this team can do going forward, so let’s maximize that rather than preach caution. Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson are not the sort of players to neglect their defensive duties and Southgate is spoiled for choice in front of that trio when it comes to attacking talent. The system works.

Carl Anka: Play a midfield trivote

Do not play three at the back!

Kylian Mbappe has been the best player at this World Cup, but it would be unwise for England to change shape for him. France’s asymmetric 4-2-3-1 gives Mbappe the perfect platform to hurt teams on the left, but one reason it is so successful is Ousmane Dembele’s work in one-v-one duels against defenders over on the right.

Swapping to a back three would put a bright neon flashing light on the areas Mbappe and Dembele will want to attack and both are tricky enough to make England’s wing-backs retreat and cause a back five extra toil.



Pochettino: Only man to coach Kane and Mbappe on their rare talents – and how to stop them

France prefers to let teams work the ball close to their final third before turning it over and looking for a counter-attack. The best way to defend and attack against them is to be secure when using the ball, scupper the important non-Mbappe personnel and maximize your forays into the French final third.

I’d suggest a 4-3-3 with a Jose Mourinho-style trivote —​​ three aggressive, tackling midfielders who could either win the ball high up the pitch and shield the back four. One midfielder will have to disrupt Antoine Griezmann’s work as France’s No 10. Another will be asked to scupper Adrien Rabiot’s runs from deep. All three midfielders will need to drop to cover the spaces behind England’s full-backs when things get sticky. Be prepared to play 120 minutes.

Laura Williamson: Use Foden off the bench

If England switch to a back three or five, they will be sitting ducks for Mbappe and company. Better to stay on the front foot, trust Kyle Walker to go toe-to-toe with France’s pace down the left and pack the midfield to stop the next ball or, dare I say it, start an England attack.

I’ve been a big supporter of Phil Foden but he can make an impact off the bench in this line-up after Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka have run and run and run (and tracked back – good job temperatures in Qatar are set to fall on Saturday).

This feels like the kind of fixture for which Gareth Southgate would normally rely on Raheem Sterling, but he is only due to arrive back from the UK on Friday and so misses out.

(Top photo design: Sam Richardson)


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