England’s plan to combat France in World Cup has been two years in making | England

England have spent two years preparing a blueprint to beat France at the World Cup and are confident they will be physically and tactically ready when they face the world champions on Saturday evening.

There was little time for rest after they swept into the quarter-finals by beating Senegal 3-0 on Sunday. Gareth Southgate and his staff returned to the team hotel in the early hours on Monday morning and then absorbed a detailed analysis of France from Tim Dittmer, the Football Association’s head of coaching.

“We got back at 3am, we went to bed, we were up at 9,” Steve Holland, Southgate’s No 2, said. “We had a presentation to us from a member of the FA, one of the national coaches who’s been tracking France all the way throughout this tournament and for the last two years.

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Photograph: Caspar Benson

Thank you for your feedback.

“So an expert not just on what’s happened at this tournament but the thinking of the manager with choices, selections, different types of opponent for the last two years. We started this morning really getting up to speed specifically on the opponent.”

Holland said it was a boost to have five days to prepare. “It’s not usual,” he said. “To be able to recover the players properly and prepare the players tactically and physically, we have the perfect opportunity. No excuses. We have time. We’re building on what we’ve done. We’re not just going back to the start.

“You hope that in the work you deliver on the training pitch and the messages you’re delivering in the meetings that the players are gaining belief from the plan. That they’re looking at it and thinking, ‘I can do that’ and ‘Yes, we can do that’. When they’re walking out on match day, where basically they’re out of our hands, that they have a genuine belief in what they’re doing. Not because of mystical words of wisdom necessarily but because of a process they’ve been through. If we do that then we’re handing over to them and requiring their individual moments to make the difference.”

Holland believes it will be tight against France. The 52-year-old, who has worked as an assistant at Chelsea, feels England are wiser after runs to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020.

“We’ve had a lot of young players who have been gaining experience,” he said. “The experience in the group is as strong as I can remember. You rely on that in these moments. From a management perspective we’ve lived these moments now. Are we excited about being in a quarter-final? Of course. But when you’ve just been to a final and a semi-final it feels a little bit different to the first quarter-final. I’m not being arrogant. We want more.

“It’s a 50-50 game. If you’re playing inferior opposition and you play well you get the result. That’s the challenge. We could play well and still not get the result. It’s 50-50 with special players who can produce something out of nothing. But the team are really well equipped for the journey this quarter-final could be. It could be a long night. I feel we’re as ready as we’ve ever been to navigate that.”

Steve Holland, England’s assistant manager, holds his tactics notebook just before kick-off for the last-16 win against Senegal.
Steve Holland, England’s assistant manager, holds his tactics notebook just before kick-off for the last-16 win against Senegal. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Holland, who described Southgate as “a good human being” and “a really good ambassador for the country”, also shed a light on the togetherness in the England camp. “When you are together a long period of time, it’s different to club football,” he said. “We don’t have 23 [players] any more, we have 26. You pick 11 and 15 are disappointed. It takes huge energy to manage that group.

“It’s a huge part of man-management. Gareth does that systematically. The players respect that and appreciate it. But there probably is a shelf life to how long a player can be a backup. Going back to my experience at Chelsea, to win you can’t have 11 players that are comfortable and know they’re going to play every week. In the end you get a drop-off. The players have to feel the faith of the manager, but also competition from the group.

“It’s a huge part of the job and Gareth does that as well as it can be done. We’ve seen in the tournament in other camps that if you do get dissent in the group, and players not feeling good about each other, that can soon in this environment spread like a cancer. It is a really important part. We’re very lucky. We have a really top group of senior professionals.”

England have a plan to take them to the final but high-quality Senegal are a danger | England

We may have got a glimpse of Gareth Southgate’s tactics for the knockout stages in the win over Wales on Tuesday. The England head coach changed the central midfield three, removing the attacking role behind Harry Kane to bring in the experienced Jordan Henderson in a deeper position.

England will have seen what other teams are doing and how they operate, leaving Southgate to create a plan that could take England through to the final. Brazil, for example, go through the middle of teams and an extra man in central midfield will help counteract that. It worked against Wales, who managed a solitary shot.

England’s first – but hopefully not last – opponents in the knockout stages are Senegal, who have serious midfield concerns. Cheikhou Kouyaté was injured in the first match and Idrissa Gueye picked up a second booking against Ecuador, meaning he will be suspended. Having to reshuffle for a vital game will be a tough ask for them.

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Photograph: Caspar Benson

Thank you for your feedback.

Midfield is an area where England are strong. Jude Bellingham has arguably been their best player across the opening three games and Declan Rice has worked diligently. Having a third deeper central player is not necessarily a defensive move because Bellingham has proved he is a threat going forward and Rice and Henderson allow him greater freedom to attack in the space previously occupied by Mason Mount. Adding Henderson in place of a more attacking midfielder brings a level of robustness that should allow England to cope with technical and physical opponents.

Kyle Walker can help protect the areas in front of the defence from right-back – it is something he does a lot at Manchester City – but he has played only an hour in the tournament, so the balance of three deeper central midfielders makes sense. Kalvin Phillips could drop into the central three and his time against Wales will be useful.

Jude Bellingham

Another change was the use of Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford from the start. In the first half they played as inverted wingers – Foden on the right and Rashford the left. The Manchester United forward was one of England’s more impressive players but Foden struggled to get into the game. Wales did well to double up on the Manchester City midfielder and when he cut inside it was into a congested area.

Southgate swapped the two over for the second half, making an immediate impact thanks to Foden’s clever dribbling to earn a free-kick from which Rashford scored. They looked more comfortable on their stronger sides. Rashford became more direct and Foden seemed liberated. The greater freedom helped him make a trademark, Pep Guardiola-inspired run to the back post to tap home the second.

The third goal came from Rashford, a sign of his returning confidence, when he cut inside and showed smart feet before finishing. No one should doubt his ability. When young players come on to the scene they are quite raw and just go for it, but the next stage, when they are about 21 and people imagine they have 50 caps and are more experienced than they are, is really hard. They have to get through that. Rashford has come out the other side and is showing what he is capable of. It is a case of believing in yourself and he has the self-confidence required at the top, allowing United and England to reap the rewards this season.

It will be difficult for Southgate to leave out Foden or Rashford. The only question is whether Foden can get in the game enough to affect it. I liked what he brought, trying to take people on, being brave and attempting to open up the opposition. The performance should help him to stay in the team.

Before the tournament the only concern I had about England was the defence. In three games they have conceded twice, which is largely down to how well they have controlled the matches. England have kept the ball well and that makes a team more defensively sound because the opposition cannot threaten without possession.

England have not lost in their 20 matches against African opposition, which is an impressive record. There have already been shocks in the tournament and the important thing is for England to maintain their focus. Kalidou Koulibaly scored Senegal’s winner after a free-kick was crossed into the box against Ecuador, a sign of how dangerous he is.

England will be favourites but they should not have one eye on the quarter-final because they will be punished. I have played in tournaments where we were tipped to win, lost concentration, conceded two goals from set pieces and were on the next plane home.

Senegal have lost some key players: not only Gueye and Kouyaté but also Sadio Mané before the World Cup began. Selfishly, as an England fan, this is good news because they will be very hard to replace. Senegal do, though, have plenty of quality. We have seen at Watford how dangerous Ismaïla Sarr is and he proved that by winning and scoring a penalty against Ecuador.

England have the tools to beat Senegal but now it is a case of getting the job done and nothing comes easy at a World Cup.

Leaderless Germany are a World Cup team stuck between two conflicting approaches | World Cup 2022

An angry team meeting. Home truths exchanged. Defeat used as a launchpad for improvement. West Germany did it in 1954 after defeat by Hungary and went on to win the World Cup. They did it in 1974 after defeat by East Germany and went on to win the World Cup. They did it in 1982 after defeat by Algeria and went on to reach the final. But that was in the old days, when Germany was a Turniermannschaft – a tournament team – and they could rely on their leaders, their Führungsspieler, to drag them through.

There was an angry team meeting after Germany’s defeat by Japan on Wednesday, but they are no longer a Turniermannschaft and they no longer seem to have any Führungsspieler. For the first time in 20 years, questions are being asked about the direction of German football.

The problem when talking about national sides is how little evidence there is. Friendlies can’t be taken seriously. A lot of qualifiers are mismatches. And so everything comes down to a handful of tournament games, when one decision, one mistake, one moment of brilliance, can transform the perspective. Which is why it’s worth beginning by going back to 2014 and Germany’s World Cup triumph.

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Thank you for your feedback.

The 7-1 win against Brazil in the semi-final, understandably, demands the attention. But that game was really a story of Brazilian hysteria and indiscipline, ruthlessly punished by a Germany forward line supremely drilled in transition, as it had been in beating Portugal in the group; and putting four past Australia, England and Argentina at the previous World Cup.

The key moment in Germany’s 2014 success had come after the edgy 2-1 win over Algeria in the last 16. Jogi Löw, recognising that his team had been fortunate in that game and against Ghana in the group – what if Jordan Ayew had squared it with Ghana 2-1 up? – went for a run along the beach in Rio. By the time he got back he had decided to go back to basics. Miroslav Klose returned at centre-forward, the fluid front three was abandoned and the centre was blocked up. The result was the functional 1-0 wins over France and Argentina (and the Brazilian self-immolation).

The World Cup win is the high point of Das Reboot, the process of reform that began in 2000 as Germany shifted from being a country dismissive of pressing to becoming its most enthusiastic proponent. The new German school – Jürgen Klopp turbocharged the revolution with his eloquent TV punditry in 2006 – became dominant across Europe, but the World Cup win was ultimately an outlier; it had in its final stages very little to do with aggressive pressing.

Hansi Flick on the touchline during Germany’s defeat by Japan
Hansi Flick is struggling to implement the style he employed at Bayern Munich with the Germany national team. Photograph: Nigel Keene/ProSports/Shutterstock

Löw always seemed caught between a desire to play in the modern style he had helped usher in as assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann at the 2006 World Cup and a stodgier but perhaps more effective approach. Germany under him could be attractive, attacking and vulnerable, or dull, defensive and impregnable. After 2014 he never quite got the balance right, culminating in the embarrassing group-stage exit four years ago.

There was talk then about cliques and Löw’s failure to integrate the younger generation who had led Germany to spectacular success at the Confederations Cup in 2017. Failure has many fathers but what has been apparent over the past few months is how that basic tactical issue persists. Hansi Flick was successful with a pugnaciously high line at Bayern Munich, winning the Champions League in 2020. But even with a goalkeeper as adept at sweeping as Manuel Neuer it is very hard, given the limited time available, to implement that with a national team.

Squeezing high up the pitch, trying to win the ball back as near to the opponent’s goal as possible, shutting down counters before they’ve had a chance to develop, may be the most effective way of attacking. But the downside is the space left behind the defensive line and, as Liverpool in 2020-21 and again this season have shown, it doesn’t take much for it to go awry.

Look at Germany’s defeat by Italy in Euro 2012, at the wobble against Ghana in 2014, at the defeats by Mexico and South Korea at the last World Cup, at the struggles against Hungary at Euro 2020 and again this summer, and the same patterns recur: Germany are vulnerable to balls played in behind them. That was the source of both Japan goals: first from a counterattack and then from a simple free-kick. Suddenly Germany is doubting its reformation.

The present system of coaching clearly produced technically adept, tactically intelligent players, but has something been lost along the way? Where are the modern-day Beckenbauers, Rummenigges, Matthäuses, the leaders who will drag them through? Are they focusing too much on rondos and not enough on individual battles?

It’s not just a German problem. There is a curious dearth of young centre-forwards at this World Cup, which is why Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suárez and Olivier Giroud (or Karim Benzema had he been fit) remain so central to their sides. Kylian Mbappé is the obvious exception, but even he prefers not to play as the out-and-out striker. But that’s an understandable outcome given how influential Spanish football, or more specifically Pep Guardiola’s vision of football, has been in shaping the ethos of modern western European academies. Spain have not really had a top-class centre-forward since David Villa’s broken leg in 2011.

Perhaps Germany would have finished Japan off in the first hour had Timo Werner not sustained a pre-tournament ankle injury but, for them, the issue is less to do with individual battles in the forward line than at the back. Perhaps bringing in Thilo Kehrer for Niklas Süle will eliminate the sort of error that led to Japan’s second, but that inability to press well enough to play as high as Flick desires is leaving Germany vulnerable.

This may be the paradox of Das Reboot; that what has made the German idea of football so successful at club level is precisely what is undermining the national side.

Patched-together Chelsea at odds with Graham Potter’s wizard eye for a bargain | Chelsea

Imagine you are Graham Potter. You consider Arsenal’s probable team to face your Chelsea side today. You look at Mikel Arteta’s front three. You are not sure who will play on the right but even with Ben Chilwell injured again you have Marc Cucurella to play on that side of the defence as well as the option of a more attacking wing-back. Then you look at the other flank, where Gabriel Martinelli has been in sensational form. You remember how he embarrassed Emerson Royal and unsettled Trent Alexander-Arnold, how his pace and directness have troubled teams all season. With Reece James out, it is an obvious problem.

Potter has taken charge of Chelsea in 11 games. In seven he has started with a back three and two others, against Wolves and the home game against Salzburg, a hybrid system perhaps best described as a 4-2-3-1 when the right-back was very attacking and the left-sided forward had to shuttle back.

That suggests an inclination to wing-backs but who can he play against Martinelli? César Azpilicueta is 33 and, although committed as ever, age is beginning to sap at him; to offer space behind him for Martinelli to attack would seem a risk. Christian Pulisic was unconvincing on that flank against Brighton as Chelsea lost 4-1. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another possibility but is relatively inexperienced as a wing-back and he may be needed in the middle.

Perhaps the solution is to use a back four with Azpilicueta as an orthodox full-back. But Thiago Silva is 38 and the defeat by Brighton exposed his lack of pace if he is isolated, as is more likely in a four, particularly when the absence of N’Golo Kanté leaves Chelsea without a real ball-winner in midfield. Notably, other than the dead rubber against Dinamo Zagreb, when the Brazilian was a substitute, the only time Potter has started with what might be termed a pure back four – in his first game, at Crystal Palace – he spent the second half adding runners.

So maybe the solution is the shape he turned to against Manchester United two weeks ago after a first half-hour when Jadon Sancho troubled Azpilicueta and Marcus Rashford repeatedly threatened to get in behind Silva: a back four protected by a midfield diamond. Jorginho may not be the most ferocious presence but his positioning can shield the centre of the defence, with Mateo Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek as diligent blockers alongside him.

That leaves Mason Mount to play behind a front two of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Raheem Sterling or possibly Kai Havertz. That would also pose Arsenal a couple of potentially tricky questions. Can Thomas Partey handle an attacking midfielder directly up against him? And how will William Saliba and Gabriel manage a front two rather than one picking up the centre-forward with the other covering behind? They had few issues against front twos in the wins over Bournemouth and Brentford, but were flustered by Adam Armstrong and Joe Aribo in the draw at Southampton.

What is most significant, though, is less which solution Potter favours than every available option feels a little awkward. They all require some tinkering and repurposing. To an extent that is a matter of misfortune: to lose James, Wesley Fofana and, although he was back on Wednesday, Kalidou Koulibaly at the same time would stretch any squad. But it also highlights how patched together this Chelsea is. Problems that predated the sanctions against Roman Abramovich are still in the process of being resolved.

Silva has far exceeded expectations but no elite club should be so reliant on a player of his age. Aubameyang, at 33, is a short-term fix necessitated by the failure of Romelu Lukaku’s return. Kanté and Jorginho are over 30 and out of contract in June. With the Todd Boehly-Clearlake ownership apparently reluctant to incur significant liability on players with little resale value, any contract offer is likely to be heavily incentive-based and that increases the possibility of one or both leaving.

Perhaps none of that is particularly unusual. Injuries cause imbalances and rebuilding squads is difficult even without the added complication of sanctions. But there is also the obvious issue that Thomas Tuchel was supposedly driving recruitment in the summer, only to be dismissed as soon as the transfer window closed.

Sterling, in the politest possible way, suggested last week he would prefer to be playing as a winger rather than as a wing-back. He will not be the only summer signing wondering whether Potter has the same plans for him that Tuchel did, wondering exactly who is doing the planning.

Boehly, with his eagerness to sign Cristiano Ronaldo and his advocacy of an all-star match, does not seem somebody who instinctively grasps the holistic nature of football, the need for not merely the best players but players whose attributes enhance and are enhanced by those of their teammates. In that regard recent moves for Brighton’s head of recruitment, Paul Winstanley, and Monaco’s technical director, Laurence Stewart, are both hugely important and overdue.

The absence of Kepa Arrizabalaga, whose recent excellence perhaps masked the issues exposed at Brighton, further complicates Potter’s thinking for Sunday but the longer-term issue is instituting a plan that ensures recruitment and coaching are coordinated. Chelsea never seemed particularly discerning in the market even in the later, more financially restrained years of the Abramovich era and, although there were plenty of trophies to show for it, they came at an average loss of £900,000 a week over his 19 years at the club.

The new regime, presumably, will not tolerate that, even if financial fair play regulations have proved to lack teeth, and neither has that been Potter’s style before. His success has come on a budget, buying players tailored to his approach. Whether that clashes with the desire for celebrity Boehly has demonstrated both with his MLB franchise and in repeated public utterances since the takeover remains to be seen.

Without a coherent strategy, though, what is left is the situation Potter finds himself in: lots of good (and expensive) players who do not quite fit together.