“You need to pay special attention to some players,” England assistant coach Steve Holland said ahead of their quarter-final against France.
“You have to put (Kylian) Mbappe in that category. We need to think about trying not to put ourselves in a situation where he’s as devastating as we’ve seen.”
How England quieted Mbappe on a night when he had just one shot and one key pass and went without a goal or an assist for the first time in a World Cup start…
Statistics tell stories
Compared to his other three starts at this World Cup, Mbappe had the fewest total touches (40) and the fewest touches in the opposition box (3). The only time he had fewer touches was in the 2018 Finals (39).
His 16 passes in the final third were his lowest figures for Qatar, as were his four attempts and two completed dribbles.
For context, here’s a chart of offensive sequence engagement in the pregame range. Mbappe averages over 10 per 90 minutes, despite using a small sample…
… Against England he had less than half his usual impact and was only tied for third in France.
So how did England do it?
Building a Back Three – Defense
Gareth Southgate’s decision to stick with a back four – rather than turning into a three/five – and not change his starting XI in Senegal’s win was seen as a key pre-match move for England’s bid to control the game sign.
In a four-a-side system on paper, England used left-back Luke Shaw and right-back Kyle Walker asymmetrically against Senegal – Walker joined centre-backs John Stones and Harry Maguire Formed a functional back three with Shaw on the left.
Senegal, like France, mainly defended in a passive 4-4-2 center.
From the first minute against France, we saw that repeated.
A notable benefit of this tactic is that Walker can always see Mbappe – even when France win the ball, he knows where the 23-year-old is and never strays too far away from him, maximizing his chances. minimize the distance he travels back to the goal.
“If anyone is going to stop Mbappe, Kyle is the one to stop him,” Poland right-back Mattikas said after the loss to France.
This is a good example of why Walker can defend Mbappe so well. Jordan Henderson’s pass (white arrow) is intercepted by Adrian Rabiot before reaching Bukayo Saka…
…Walker has a clear eye for Mbappe…
… Walker can track Mbappe’s movements as Rabiot pushes forward – the details of his body position are crucial here.
The City full-back faces Kylian Mbappe, which means he can match his foot shape, and if Rabiot does pass the ball to the PSG striker, he is ready to duel…
…very convincingly when Rabiot passes the ball to Mbappe (white solid arrow) – note that the French midfielder has a shot angle with his dominant left foot ( Red dotted arrow) – Walker’s position is beyond the vertical line of the ball, clearly more focused on preventing Mbappe’s involvement than blocking himself from any possible shots.
Mbappe’s cross was deep and right winger Ousmane Dembele tried to block the back post but was well tracked by Shaw, showing Walker’s contrasting defensive responsibilities.
A repetition of this could be seen later in the second half.
Jude Bellingham tries to bounce John Stones’ pass (white arrow) back to Walker (red arrow) but Mbappe intercepts…
… The striker is the most advanced player in the blue shirt, Walker can delay his one-on-one time, and the recovery of Bellingham will give England the numerical advantage to stop the attack.
When England conceded the ball in the France half, Walker was in an advantageous position to pounce on Mbappe and block passes to him, such as this time with France’s counter-attack.
Building a Back Three – Attacking
Walker’s deep and narrow positioning is also thought to be an attempt to exploit Mbappe’s weaknesses – he either doesn’t like defending or isn’t a great defender.
Mbappe ‘defended’ alongside Olivier Giroud in France’s 4-4-2 centrally, often ‘cheating’ high up the pitch in front of left-back Theo Hernandez.
That leaves room for England to play and space on the right, with Saka being spotted on multiple occasions against an isolated Hernandez…
With these long balls, England were able to counterattack and press France wide when lost possession.
England had six turnovers in the quarter-finals, France just one – and Didier Deschamps’ side had nearly three times as many passes per defensive action (PPDA) as England . Simply put, France is passive.
Down below, Walker gained possession after Maguire’s diagonal header and was able to find Henderson in space, with Mbappe close to the center circle.
Mbappe’s touch chart showed very little activity in the defensive half – just seven touches throughout the evening.
Here’s another example of exploiting the gap behind Mbappe…
The positioning of Walker and Shaw (yellow dots) highlights this approach, with the ‘right-back’ still close to Mbappe in the England half when Southgate’s side are in possession.
Bellingham, who had rotated into a wide position, broke the pressure with a pass to Phil Foden, who had moved inwards on the left.
…with Saka on again, Mbappe without any defensive cover…
England combined deftly down the right but at times went too far. They were able to maintain their presence there as France never outnumbered them.
Nearly 30 seconds after the substitution, Mbappe was still on the edge of the French defensive three-point line.
Midfielders Antoine Griezmann, Aurelian Gihomeny and Rabiot had moved wide to defend and support Hernandez.
As the graphic above shows, a by-product of Mbappe’s lack of defensive intensity off the ball was how deep he pressed Hernandez.
That’s been a problem for France, as the left-back has been a key cog in their attack, especially as he repeatedly runs past Mbappe or passes to strikers in dangerous positions.
Here’s an example against Australia, Hernandez attacking high, passing the ball to Mbappe…
England’s passing network showed the attacking value of their combinations on the right, one of which led to Saka being fouled by Jomeni, the first penalty.
England followed Poland and Australia in directing their attack down the right flank, with France conceding 47 crosses down the right but only 32 down the left.
Perhaps the best example of this was the moment England missed a penalty midway through the first half.
There is also a diagonal towards Saka…
…who managed to keep the ball in play with his header, but that drew Hernandez wide without any cover from Mbappe…
…In five seconds, England pinned the left-back on the touchline. Walker followed Mbappe, Saka forced a mistake, and then Kane dribbled the ball into the penalty area, which was blocked by Upamecano. VAR checked the foul, but no penalty was awarded because it happened outside the penalty area.
The pressing trap of the Dayot Upamecano
“The boys in the middle, Henderson, Bellingham, Rice, Stones and Maguire, if they can stop the ball in the middle, it means Mbappe gets a lot less dangerous passes. ,’ said former England defender Gary Neville.
Stopping Mbappe will require England to do a lot. Especially in the first half, the England team had effective counter pressure, strong ball control ability, and relatively little defense against forwards in the game.
One thing they clearly want to do is limit France’s attacking left flank with Mbappe loitering around.
Henderson’s tendency to pass the ball from right centre-back Rafael Varane to partner Upamecano is particularly interesting. England don’t want France to move the ball from right to left.
When the French team has the ball on the right (opposite Mbappe), they are more passive…
…but Henderson moves once Varane strikes Upamecano, and there are signs the ball could go left…
…to force an immediate return pass. It may seem relatively innocuous, but it’s important not to downplay France’s left.
This is another example of wanting to prevent France from moving the ball to the left.
Dembele passed back to Upamecano, France looking to move the game to Mbappe on the outside of Walker…
…but that triggers Henderson again…
… who was too enthusiastic, Upamecano skipped him. But there was Saka, who went inside and fouled the advancing centre-back.
Walker faced Mbappe, turning his hips and feet, anticipating a race walk.
Doubling and managing games
Southgate’s side were booked for a tenacious rotation foul on the pitch and didn’t commit a foul until the 37th minute. By then, France had scored five.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to England’s defense is that when they did get forced to foul Mbappe – and only twice – they were never cynical.
Henderson fouled Mbappe after making a vital recovery run, double-teaming with midfielder Declan Rice. …
…and when Mbappe did gain possession, it was a theme in their defensive approach, especially on the wing.
Mbappe would often have Walker between him and goal, but would also have a midfielder or winger press from the side to prevent him from dribbling inside onto his preferred right foot…
This continued throughout the game, even with Raheem Sterling replacing Saka, who looked a little tired helping Walker defend Mbappe.
Mbappe didn’t have his usual clout, but he was still involved in France’s opener.
England try to use two midfielders (Reiss and Henderson) plus Walker for three consecutive…
…that was fine initially, but what happened next showed the tactical consequences of getting it wrong – space was created elsewhere.
So when Mbappe deftly finds Tchouameni, the two can combine to get Mbappe into the center of the space…
…where he can find Dembele on the right. Wide players like this are not common.
Dembele then passed the ball back to Griezmann, who then passed the ball to the open Chuameni. The Real Madrid midfielder had just enough time to find his footing before firing into the corner of the goal, overtaking a save from Jordan Pickford…
France’s early involvement in the opening goal was as dangerous as Mbappe’s, which was relatively rare by his standards – a pass to score from outside the box.
Another time, Mbappe clearly beat Walker in speed.
Henderson came to cover but Mbappe was finally able to widen around Walker – and there was room to drive straight…
… Despite initial contact with the striker, Walker let him go and Mbappe moved into the cut, but neither Giroud nor Dembele could get a shot.
This time, England showed good defensive space and box advantage, so should really have won the first touch.
For a game largely billed as Walker-Mbappe, it showed just how well-rounded England were in attack and defense, with the French striker’s name barely appearing in the post-match discussion.
He wasn’t as decisive as he was in this tournament, but the defending champions still found a way to win.