The England manager considered the life of the mind. ‘The job,’ explained Gareth Southgate, ‘is not just to have a philosophy, the job is to win matches.
‘So you can have a philosophy, but if you’re going home at the start of the tournament, that philosophy doesn’t wash. With the national team you’ve got to keep winning.’
Think of it another way. In 2007, Reading made two visits to Old Trafford, one in the FA Cup, the other in the league, and got a draw both times. In the league match, they played the last 17 minutes down to 10 men, and drew 0-0 against a team that included peak Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.
Gareth Southgate will have to have a plan to stop star man Kylian Mbappe against France
Steve Coppell, the manager, had to get away quickly, leaving press duties to assistant Wally Downes.
Coppell has a dry wit. Downes, who Southgate knows well from their time at Crystal Palace, is less likely to take prisoners.
‘You seemed to have a specific plan from the start?’ said the first questioner, admiringly. ‘Yes,’ deadpanned Downes. ‘Try coming here without one.’
And that’s the crux of it really. What were Reading to do at Old Trafford? You have a go, then we’ll have a go? It is the same with England, France and Kylian Mbappe.
There are some players who have to be accounted for and, right now, Mbappe is one. It doesn’t mean betraying the strengths or beliefs of your team, or at least it shouldn’t.
Kylian Mbappe has been the star of World Cup 2022 and has already scored five goals
It doesn’t mean forgetting England are capable of hurting France, too, as they are. Yet France possess a generational talent, arguably the greatest player at this World Cup, and that includes Lionel Messi. It would be arrogant, not to mention negligent, to refuse to acknowledge this fact. England do not want to get into a chuckle-headed exchange of blows.
Last month, a new sport emerged in Las Vegas. The Power Slap League does pretty much what it says on the tin. The two competitors face each other and take turns slapping their opponent on the face with an open hand. There is no defence, only offence, and many are doubting the Nevada state athletic commission’s sanity for allowing such overt violence.
The argument is there will now be mouthguards, ear plugs and rules governing what part of the face can be struck; against this, there have been instances of concussion and slappers slumping into unconsciousness. ‘It’s what you’d get if you let 13-year-old boys invent a sport,’ wrote one observer. ‘You might as well kick each other in the nuts,’ argued USA Today.
Yet there will be those making a case for England to go power-slapping, or even nut-kicking, against Mbappe. Slap, Bukayo Saka has a go. Kick, here comes Mbappe. There is only one winner in that strategy. Mbappe would walk into this England team; Mbappe would walk into any team at this World Cup. So strategy is essential.
Kyle Walker has been earmarked as the man who can keep up with the speed of Kylian Mbappe
Nobody tries to out-pass a team coached by Pep Guardiola. That doesn’t mean they cannot be beaten. It just means the opposition have to find another way.
It is an irony, too, that with Southgate accused of negativity for so long, now it seems likely he will take a gamble, he may end up accused of being too cavalier if England lose playing a conventional back four, with no extra provision for the player on France’s left. Those urging England to get on the front foot will swiftly vanish without sharing responsibility if they do, and it fails.
Equally, if Southgate addresses the threat of Mbappe without success, it will be imagined a more daring England would have swept Didier Deschamps’s team off the park. He only wins if he wins.
Just as when Marcus Rashford was omitted against Senegal, Southgate’s critics presupposed disaster, so it will be that, if defeated, every call will be repurposed as a gift to France.
They has been talk of doubling up against Mbappe by playing both Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier on Saturday
So what is the argument for doubling up on Mbappe with Kieran Trippier outside Kyle Walker? Here goes: Trippier, who can also attack and puts in a good cross, has the most defensive smarts of Southgate’s options. He will be there, not to confront the player specifically, but to block and cut his supply lines.
When this process fails — as it will on occasions because France are no mugs — then Walker meets him one on one, and Trippier recovers to take him on if he cuts inside, on his favoured right foot. If he chooses to go outside Walker, then it is hoped England’s quickest full back can meet that challenge with a yard start.
So why Trippier and not Saka, who is more of a forward threat and has limited experience at wing-back? Simply, Trippier reinforces the defensive side.
We can argue that a 4-3-3 has got England this far but this is a huge escalation in class and against an XI as talented as France it invariably reverts to 4-5-1 anyway.
England will have nothing to fear after their impressive win over Senegal in their last-16 match
So why not start the player more adept in that system? Trippier is intelligent enough to join in and create the 4-3-3 shape in attack, and Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice experienced enough to see when that is happening and drift across to cut the path to Mbappe in the event of a counter-attack.
It doesn’t even mean dropping Saka, it just means choosing between him and Foden at the start of this one match.
And some will argue this talk is negative, that it hands France the psychological advantage. If Southgate changes his shape and strategy it says he is frightened and sets a poor tone.
If Southgate changes his shape and strategy many fans will argue that the boss is negative
That’s not true. Some matches, some challenges, are just different. Sir Alex Ferguson had no compunction about setting out a specific team for a specific fixture. Darren Fletcher said he would tell him to rest for a few weeks and have a think about, for instance, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. He would be needed that day. Ferguson was never scared to set up a team just for a day.
It was about winning. Southgate knows this, too. He says he has known how and who he will play since Monday, and most presume a back four. Yet there was enough pragmatism in his conversation yesterday to suggest he knows that no good will come of refusing to make a plan for Mbappe.
There some big calls for Gareth Southgate to make ahead of the quarter-final clash with France
‘You’ve got to recognise states and stages of games,’ he said. ‘You can’t, against a team of France’s level, just go out and play and not have any preparation for what they’re doing. But also we can’t overdo that. We’ve got strengths ourselves and want to make sure we keep accentuating those.
‘Usually, if we change shape it’s for a tactical problem rather than an individual. Clearly with France, they have an outstanding player, so you need extra bodies around him. We’ve got a player who can deal with that as well as anybody but it can’t be just his responsibility. You’ve got to have zonal coverage and we can’t let Antoine Griezmann have the run of the park because he’s pretty good himself.
‘I know people think I have a preference for a certain system, but if anything my preference has always been 4-3-3. I just don’t think it’s always been appropriate for us to play that and get the best out of the team. We prepare the team for the patterns we see and the positions players like to take up. But, equally, we’re doing that at the other end of the pitch as well.’
There have been a number of standout performers for England at the World Cup in Qatar
And there’s the dilemma. Trippier could not score Saka’s third goal against Senegal — the Messi-like dink over the goalkeeper — because he wouldn’t get in that position. Equally, no coach selecting a pair of players to best control Mbappe for 90 minutes would look beyond Tripper and Walker.
There are numbers flying around that suggest England should be cavalier, even bullish: eight goalscorers at this World Cup to France’s three, three clean sheets to France’s none.
Yet here’s how a continuance of those ambitions might be best served: Mbappe against Walker and Trippier: 424 minutes, just one goal. It might be a plan.