England calm and confident ahead of biggest test of Gareth Southgate era

It speaks to Gareth Southgate’s confidence in this England team that he had decided his formation and starting XI for the France match on Monday morning. While so many others around the squad were worrying about Kylian Mbappe, and wondering whether Southgate would agonise over a big choice on how to approach him, the manager had already long made up his mind.

That came after a 9am presentation on France from FA head of coaching Steve Dittmer that just confirmed what the England manager was already thinking. Southgate is now so confident in his team that he doesn’t feel they need to compromise for a player like Mbappe in the way he used to.

That has only helped to focus the work of the week. The key for the coaches since then, and especially in the day before the game, has been to distil all crucial points to messages the players can easily digest.

Assistant Steve Holland says that the challenge is that the players are so full of confidence that “when they’re walking out of the tunnel on match day they’ve been through a foundation and a process they believe has got a chance”.

The England squad believe they’ve got much more than a chance. The view within the camp - from players to staff - is that they’ve never been in as good a place going into such a game in terms of form, mentality and experience.

That’s just as well, because they have probably never faced such a test in the Southgate era.

A match against the world champions, on this kind of form, goes well beyond Croatia in the 2018 semi-finals, Germany at Wembley in the Euro 2020 last 16 and Italy in the final. It is also a mental test, as well as a football test.

England have never knocked top-class opposition out of a tournament if the match wasn’t on home soil. It is that one last test to pass, to show they really have what it takes to win this World Cup.

Should England beat France, there could be no more doubt, no more questions about this team’s calibre.

They first have to show their solutions to the challenge of the world champions actually work, of course.

It's not just about perhaps the best team in the world, of course. They are also facing the best player in the world, the star of the World Cup so far. This is why Southgate's early decision is itself so instructive.

The manager and his staff have already spoken about Mbappe as one of “a handful of players on the planet that you need to consider special attention to”.

To add to that, the 23-year-old is evidently on special form. While his talents are devastating in normal circumstances, those around the French squad speak of Mbappe going onto a higher level even for him. The system and surroundings make him feel “at home” with the squad and himself. It has got Mbappe into the kind of mood where he is not just willing to try anything but in the form to pull it off. The audacity of his first goal against Poland was the ultimate assertion of this. Jordan Pickford spoke about it in endearingly humorous terms.

“His finishing on that first one when he has reversed it into top bins is a great finish but everyone knows what a top individual he is.”

Southgate’s approach, however, also shows how much the manager now knows this team.

In previous campaigns, the instinct would have been to go to a three-man backline in order to protect that defence. It would have been security first at the expense of England’s excellent array of attackers, and supposedly typical Southgate pragmatism.

Now, all suggestions from the squad are that the manager will stick with the same team that played Senegal. Southgate even made a point of saying on the eve of the quarter-final that his “preference has always been 4-3-3”. He then went on to add that, in Kyle Walker, England have “obviously got a player who can deal with that as well as anybody”.

Mbappe has been electric in Doha (Getty Images)
Mbappe has been electric in Doha (Getty Images)

It won’t just be the Manchester City right-back on Mbappe, though. This is where the rise of Bukayo Saka and resurgence of Jordan Henderson are so important. While the Liverpool captain can shuttle in there to use his ample experience and excessive workrate, Saka offers a tactical discipline that none of England’s other attackers do. The likelihood is that there will be times when these three treble up on Mbappe, before releasing Saka.

It similarly speaks to Southgate’s increased trust in this team that he is willing to try this.

“If you’d asked me four years ago were we quite ready, I’m not sure,” the manager said. “Now, I feel differently about that, and that’s because we’ve got evidence over a long period of results.”

There are still many risks if England do go with a 4-3-3, of course. The manager himself spoke of the need to not allow Antoine Griezmann "the run of the park", since there is a clear danger that his vibrant new role behind Olivier Giroud could sufficiently occupy Harry Maguire and John Stones to take them out of the game. The way in which France use Ousmane Dembele as well as Mbappe on the wings could meanwhile occupy the full-backs. That would have the double effect of diluting England’s ability to overlap and their danger out wide, which is one of their main angles of attack.

This, however, is precisely the “cat and mouse” game that Holland referred to. It is why England have spent much of the week working on transitions that in turn pin France back. That is the consequence of that presentation just six hours after they got in from the Senegal match. It was all about how Didier Deschamps thinks, the decisions he makes based on specific opposition and game states, and potential gaps in the French side.

Declan Rice has already been very vocal about how the England players themselves have “seen some weaknesses in them that we can try to exploit”. The midfielder meanwhile says his own team have been “flawless” and “silencing the critics”.

Such bullishness has been noted in the French camp. Some want to make a point of silencing that talk. Others respect it. They see this as a game of equals. The England squad similarly see it as 50-50.

That’s the thing about Southgate’s approach for this quarter-final. No game at this level comes out with compromise somewhere. No game at this level comes without spells of serious opposition pressure.

“There will be moments where France have spells of play and we have to accept that we are not going to stop them creating a chance and we are not going to stop them having a spell in the game,” Southgate said. “But we continue to be brave when those things happen.

“In big games, in the end, big players step up and they can be decisive.”

Southgate has made his own decision. It’s now in the hands of the players. Such calls could go a long way to deciding whose hands the World Cup itself ends up in.