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How do England contain France's duel-threat of Mbappe and Dembele?

Posted on December 09, 2022

On Saturday, Gareth Southgate and England face their toughest test of the World Cup so far as they take on France in the quarter-finals. Not only will they face the defending champions, but they will also have to go up against two of the best attackers in world football in Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe.

The last time England met France was June 2017. Mbappe was making his fourth appearance for the French first team, while Dembele his seventh. Both players were however that summer destined to make big money moves to PSG and Barcelona, respectively. They had performed so well in the prior season that already they were being touted as the future of French football, especially Mbappe, who had scored 28 goals for Monaco that season, including six in the Champions League, in a year they went all the way to the semi-finals.

Funnily enough that day, it was the combination of the pair that secured France the win. Paul Pogba fed Mbappe, who slotted through the pass for Dembele to find the winner with a low, powerful finish into the bottom corner. As well as combining for the winner, both players ran rings around England’s defence, including John Stones, who earned a WhoScored rating of 6.59 that day.

Not only was this a warning to the rest of the world of the direction France would be taking in the coming years, but also of the talent that was about to be unleashed from those young stars, especially Mbappe.

Fast forward to the present day, and though Dembele hasn’t quite hit the heights of Mbappe, mainly owing to his injury problems, he is still playing for Barcelona at a top level, which was recognised by the latter's desire for the former to join him at PSG. Mbappe, on the other hand, has continued to get better and better, scoring goals by the bucketload, including in the 2018 World Cup final, winning awards, and continuously being linked with a move to Real Madrid.

The pair have been key in France’s progression in Qatar, and will almost certainly be heavily involved on Saturday night. The job for Southgate, and England as a whole, will be working out how to contain the pair, while not undermining their own gameplan to win the game.

The main problem that faces Southgate in his selection dilemma is that his counterpart Didier Deschamps has arguably the most balanced attack at his disposal in Qatar, so working out a way to deal with that may prove difficult.

France have averaged 17.5 shots per game, netting nine goals, eight of which have been scored by their frontline, with Mbappe scoring five and record-goalscorer Olivier Giroud chipping in with three. Dembele, with two assists, and Griezmann, with 15 key passes, have been creating chances. Even from the bench they have options, including Kingsley Coman, Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani. The simple option could be doubling up on Mbappe, who is already one of the favourites for both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball, but then you leave yourself with the small problem of giving the rest of the attack free reign.

England are yet to use a three-man defence in the winter tournament, choosing to opt for a more offensive setup, which arguably would be expected against weaker opposition. In the Euros last year, Southgate used a three-man defence to good effect against the so-called bigger teams, in Germany and Italy, only conceding once. However, though this worked well, it must be said the attacks of both sides were nowhere near the quality of the one France possesses, so this method may actually hinder England’s gameplan going forward. The system should offer the extra security to contain France’s threat, though would leave Dembele the space to burst at pace against Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire, who have each committed the five fouls at the World Cup; only Mason Mount (6) ranks higher of all England players.

Pointing back to that friendly in 2017, Southgate chose to play a three-man backline consisting of Phil Jones, John Stones and Gary Cahill. The personnel who start Saturday have improved since that 3-2 loss, while Stones has developed well, but the point stands that France, including Dembele and Mbappe, have matured since then.

Another method could be to bulk out the midfield, potentially bringing in more defensive minded players such as Kalvin Phillips, who performed well at those Euros in England’s route to the final, and potentially even Eric Dier, who has been key, defensively, for Spurs this season. This could help to soak up the pressure of France’s attack, but again could leave them short in attacking areas.

It does leave the England boss with a bit of a conundrum ahead of the clash this weekend, but these are the decisions that must be made when competing at this level against the best and if England strive to reach the level of success of France, they have to learn how to beat them, and this includes nullifying their most potent attacking threats.