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.
“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.”
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.”
A little more than 40 years on and Gareth Southgate can still freeze-frame the moment. So can every England fan of his generation. The long throw had been flicked on and there was Bryan Robson, his hero, everybody’s hero, getting his body side-on, allowing the ball to run across him before volleying it down and in.
There were 27 seconds on the clock and England were 1-0 up against France. Robson would score again in the second half, a majestic leap and thumping header for 2-1 and England pulled clear to win 3-1. Their 1982 World Cup campaign was up and running.
Like countless kids in England, Southgate modelled himself on Robson. He had the same boots; he wore his shirt out at the front, tucked in at the back; he played in midfield. He even tried to run like him. Southgate ran that day, back from school to catch the France game, getting there just in time for Robson’s iconic opener.
Southgate grew up as a fan of Manchester United, where Robson moved in 1981, so this was all impossibly brilliant for the impressionable 11-year-old; his first vivid World Cup memory. Southgate has vague recollections of the 1978 finals, having to support Scotland because England had not qualified, the ticker-tape and all the rest. But 1982 was his first real World Cup, when the love affair began.
He collected the stickers and he was heartbroken when England fell short in the second group phase, throwing on the half-fit Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking against Spain but failing to unlock the 0-0. They went home having not lost a game.
“Bryan was my hero and I remember both of his goals against France,” Southgate said. “It was my first World Cup watching England and also the Brazilian team of that tournament – Zico, Éder, Falcão, Sócrates …
“I was a midfield player like Bryan. Not of his class but I used to chip in with a few goals. To get to work with him as a player with England [Robson was the assistant manager from 1994-96] … I found that really difficult. The same with Steve Coppell [who managed Southgate at Crystal Palace]. They were both heroes of mine so, yeah, I never really got fully comfortable with that until later.”
As Southgate and England prepare for their World Cup quarter-final against France on Saturday, in Qatar’s northern outpost of Al Khor, it is strange to think it will be the first meeting between the nations at this competition since 1982. They have played each other on only one other occasion at the World Cup – the final group-stage tie in 1966 when England won 2-0 en route to the trophy.
Southgate has another France game in his thoughts, rather lower profile and less emotional but of real significance in terms of his England journey. It came in June 2017 at the Stade de France – his only managerial clash against Les Bleus – a 3-2 friendly defeat in which the gap between the nations was mapped out in graphic detail.
An 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé ran riot and so did Ousmane Dembélé. France were quicker, stronger, superior in every department. They had Raphaël Varane sent off when he conceded a penalty for 2-2 but it felt as though France had the extra man thereafter, Dembélé’s winner the least they deserved.
That was then, this is now and England approach the quarter-final as a team transformed – not only in personnel – comfortable in themselves and their system. Belief is high and it was reinforced by the manner of their 3-0 win against Senegal in the last 16.
Declan Rice was asked whether France ought to fear England rather than it being the other way around – as perhaps it was in 2017. “Yes,” the midfielder replied. “I don’t think we get the credit we deserve. If Holland and Argentina win their games comfortably, they get called masterclasses.
“With us, it always gets picked off. The negative things always come that way. If you look at the last couple of games, it’s been faultless. I think countries should be starting to fear us now because we’re a great team.”
Jude Bellingham, the man of the moment, also caught the mood. “We’re getting to that point now, confidence-wise, where we think we can try and take on anyone. We play with a fearlessness. Especially as young boys, we don’t really care about who we’re playing against.”
It is easy to worry about Mbappé. As England made the coach journey to the Senegal game, Luke Shaw said that they were able to watch the last 20 minutes of France’s 3-1 win against Poland. Mbappé scored twice during the period, giving him five for the tournament, a grip on the Golden Boot and a channel into the minds of England’s defenders.
It would be naive to focus purely on Mbappé. France have other threats. And yet his presence, his ability to produce at the decisive moment, is by some distance the most insistent line of questioning for Southgate and his players. How to stop Mbappé?
England have made it this far in a 4-3-3 system, the balance of the midfield key. Since Jordan Henderson has come into the team, he has provided a measure of security around Bellingham, allowing the 19-year-old the freedom to push higher, to force turnovers, to drive with the ball. Rice adds his own qualities in front of the defence.
There has long been the feeling that when England face an elite-level opponent, Southgate will revert to a back three – using Kieran Trippier at right wing-back and Kyle Walker at right centre-half. This would offer a double bolt against Mbappé, who has operated off the left.
As an aside, it was a concern to see how the Senegal winger Ismaïla Sarr beat Walker and got away from him in one first-half incident. Walker, who had to foul him, fortunately escaping a yellow card, has played only twice since groin surgery on 4 October.
Southgate knows what everybody at home will want; stick with the back four, try to be assertive in midfield. If England are to lose, then better to go out swinging. He appeared to suggest that he was thinking along those lines, although there remains plenty of time before the game.
“We’re wanting to be positive and we feel we’ve done that so far in this tournament,” Southgate said, when asked whether he was considering a safer approach. “We’ve got energy in the team, we’ve got depth in the squad. So I don’t think we should be drifting too far from what we’ve been. You’ve obviously got to make allowances for the opposition and find out where you can exploit them but we’ve got good players to come in, as well.”
Rice made an upbeat final point, attacking the criticism that has followed England’s performances in the first half-hour of games – and the first halves against the USA and Wales.
“Against the big teams, there has always been a lot of talk about us using the ball,” Rice said. “In this tournament, we’ve pretty much controlled every game. We’ve had a fair share of possession, we’ve moved it really well.
“The opening stages [of games] have been really shaky because teams are really trying to stop us playing. But once we get that goal, they have to change. It opens up and then you really start to see us play. Against France, we’ve seen some weaknesses in them that we can try to exploit. It’s set up for a great game.”
England will face France in a World Cup on Saturday for the first time since 1982, when they prevailed 3-1 in the first group stage. They hold the upper hand in this fixture, winning 17 times to Les Bleus’ nine, although 10 of those victories came before 1950. France have won five of the past eight encounters, England coming out on top once.
The match at Al Bayt Stadium offers a huge opportunity to improve that run: Didier Deschamps’s world champions are in free-scoring form but have been ravaged by injuries and are unbalanced in some areas. Here is a look at the factors that may decide their fate.
Strengths They have a significant one called Kylian Mbappé. He can illuminate the dreariest of games in an instant, as he did by creating Olivier Giroud’s opener against Poland when France were going nowhere fast and setting the platform for his own second-half masterclass. The on-pitch relationship between the two, muted at Russia 2018, is visibly growing; a front line completed by Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann is beginning to show genuine cohesion. In midfield, Aurélien Tchouaméni is an admirable replacement for N’Golo Kanté, covers the ground at both ends of the pitch and uses the ball efficiently. Another major plus is their experience of winning at this level. France have the composure and unruffled complexion of world champions and, when conditions become fraught, that tends to show.
WeaknessesEngland should look to target France’s susceptibility on the flanks. Their full-backs have not looked convincing, especially on the right where Jules Koundé is being used in an unfamiliar role. A modest Poland side had joy going down the sides in the first half and Dembélé did not always give his Barcelona teammate much support. Lucas Hernandez is sometimes left exposed on the other side by Mbappé’s attacking tunnel vision; Deschamps has reminded his superstar more than once about the need to fulfil defensive obligations. Elsewhere, the lack of a midfielder with the eye for a killer forward pass sometimes sticks out and even though Griezmann and Dembélé became more involved on Sunday they still have a habit of looking to build too many attacks directly through Mbappé. More variation would come in useful against England. A lack of options from the bench, mainly owing to their injury list, may also prove critical if the game is long and tight.
Tactics “Get it to Mbappé” is high on reward when it works. He will nominally play on the left side of their attack, with Dembélé on the right and Griezmann floating behind Giroud, although in practice he may roam where mood and opportunity carry him. Deschamps raised eyebrows before the tournament by announcing he would field a back four having used a back three for much of the time since Russia 2018; a meeting with England could be more conducive to the latter but he has no natural right wing-back. France may allow England possession for significant periods in the hope they can counter through Mbappé and Dembélé. They will not play an especially intense pressing game from the front: Giroud simply does not have the legs for it.
Danger men Have we mentioned Mbappé yet? He has been electric, five of his 33 international goals coming in this tournament. It is a racing certainty he will overtake Giroud’s hard-won national scoring record of 52, set after Mbappé’s assist against Poland, over the next couple of years. In any other side Griezmann and Dembélé would be considered star turns; even as supporting acts, though, neither can be left unattended. Giroud’s link-up play with all three is smart and he offers the bonus of a towering aerial threat, which comes in especially handy at set-pieces. Raphaël Varane, whose goal took France to the 2018 final, also poses a threat from those situations. Hernandez’s attacking runs in support of Mbappé will require attention.
Coach It takes a stretch to recall a time when Deschamps was not at the helm. He is 10 years in the job, becoming the second man to captain and manage a team to World Cup glory when France beat Croatia at Russia 2018. That does not insulate him from criticism: he came under heavy fire after the surprise exit to Switzerland at Euro 2020 and has, at various times, been accused of adopting an unnecessarily conservative approach. He proved the doubters wrong four years ago and can scent a repeat performance now. One of his most valuable achievements has been to instil a discipline and togetherness that, to put it lightly, has not always been taken for granted in France squads.
Momentum There were fears Deschamps had stalled France’s early progress when he rested nine of his key players for the final group game against Tunisia. They lost 1-0 and only made an impression when the cavalry arrived late on. But they were already through and Deschamps was adamant the benefits of a refreshed side would pay off handsomely. Against Poland, it started to, particularly during a second half when their opponents were barely given a kick. France have scored nine goals in the three matches their big guns have been wheeled out; Mbappé is in irresistible form and there were encouraging signs their attackers are on the same wavelength. The sense is that only a fresh set of injury setbacks could stifle their growing confidence before Saturday.
For a country that sent its king and queen to the guillotine France has an enduring and surprising fascination for the monarchy. So it is no surprise that Saturday’s quarter-final between England and France is being seen as a royal duel between King Kylian and Prince Harry.
After Sunday’s matches set the scene for a battle between the two countries – historic rivals on and off the pitch despite the Entente Cordiale – Eurosport carried a picture of Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappé and declared: “The quarter-final on Saturday will have an unusual flavour: for the first time in history the French team and the English team will cross swords in a direct elimination match”.
France Info headlined with France meeting its “best enemy” and “Prince Harry” referring to Kane making the “French kingdom tremble”.
No reference to the Anglo-French rivalry is complete without a reference to “perfidious Albion” and France Info did not disappoint. “Between France and England, [football] history dates back more than a century to the first match on 1 November 1906 [which England won 15-0],” it said.
“Since then, Perfidious Albion have won 23 of the 40 official duels, with 11 victories for the French and six draws. But 16 of these successes were achieved before the war … In the 21st century, Les Bleus have won four of the six encounters, with one defeat and one draw. And while this match has become a European classic, it will be the first time the two nations have faced each other in an international tournament’s decisive match.”
L’Équipe carried a photo of Mbappé with the headline: “God Save Notre [Our] King”. The French crown should have been shared with Olivier Giroud, who became France’s leading goalscorer after Sunday’s match against Poland when he recorded his 52nd and surpassed the 13-year-old record set by Thierry Henry.
The regional newspaper Sud-Ouest asked if Les Bleus were “prêts à manger du lion”, ready to eat the Lions, while Le Figaro said facing England could be France’s first serious challenge. “For those who thought that the French team’s journey so far was too easy, it is possible that they will change their minds next Saturday, on the occasion of a quarter-final between Les Bleus and England, which is as explosive as it is attractive .
“The two teams have not faced each other since 13 June 2017, when Didier Deschamps’ men got the better of the Three Lions in a friendly match at the Stade de France. But in five years, a lot of water has flowed under the bridges of the Seine and the Thames. Since the start of the competition, both teams have impressed … this means that both Les Bleus and the Three Lions will have plenty of confidence going into the quarter-final.”
Many French commentators relayed remarks from across the Channel indicating admiration – some saw fear – of Mbappé. The football website maxifoot.fr said he was “already causing “deep concern” in the England camp.
England’s Phil Foden told TF1 that Mbappé is “the player of the tournament until now” and his teammate Jordan Henderson told Belgian journalists he was “probably the best player in the world right now, with Messi”. French journalists relayed how Sky Sports had referred to “the Mbappé threat”.
King Mbappé, who has earned the French Football Federation a €10,000 fine from Fifa for refusing to speak to the press, broke his silence after Sunday’s victory to declare: “My sole aim is to win the World Cup … and the next match. It’s the only thing I dream about.”
In the other realm, Prince Harry has the same goal.
Didier Deschamps paid tribute to Olivier Giroud after the forward broke France’s men’s goalscoring record in their 3-1 win against Poland. Giroud’s 52nd strike for Les Bleus eclipsed a milestone set by Thierry Henry and Deschamps said it was just reward for overcoming criticism at various points in his career, including when he drew a blank during their triumph at Russia 2018.
Giroud has scored three times at this tournament and France, the holders, look in menacing shape before the last eight. “Four years ago he didn’t score but he was still an important player,” Deschamps said. “He has had difficult periods in his career. He has often been criticised but people are now seeing his quality. He stayed strong mentally and has broken a very difficult record held by Henry.”
Sitting next to him was Kylian Mbappé, who brought his international tally to 33 with two goals in the last-16 victory and, at 23, is 12 years Giroud’s junior. “Another boy here might break it one day,” Deschamps joked. “To score so many goals at international level is a great achievement. [Giroud] was already there when I arrived.”
Mbappé leads the golden boot charts at Qatar 2022 with five goals but scotched any suggestion that pursuing the prize might distract him. “The only objective for me is to win the World Cup,” he said. “That’s my only dream. I didn’t come to win the golden boot. If I do win it I’ll be happy but that’s not what I am here for.”
Although Mbappé’s performance, particularly after half-time, appeared to be masterful it earned mixed reviews from his manager. “He speaks on the pitch,” Deschamps said. “He didn’t have his best match tonight. He knows that himself but he can change a match in just a moment. He always plays with joy and we all want to share those smiles. France needed a great Kylian Mbappé tonight and they got one.”
Deschamps praised the understanding Mbappé and Giroud have developed since 2018, when the former operated in a more orthodox right-sided role. “They are now closer together and technically, over the years, have developed an understanding,” he said. “But I don’t mind if it doesn’t work and we get the same result as in 2018.”
The Milan player Giroud said his record was a “childhood dream” and praised the “solidarity and unity” he believes has been critical to France’s progress. They will play England or Senegal in the last eight after winning three of their four matches, scoring nine goals.
After all that noise – the joy, the triumphalism, the entitlement, the schadenfreude, the self-loathing – England had the best record of any team in the group stage at Qatar 2022. It shows how far they have come under Gareth Southgate that seven points and nine goals, the latter a record for England at a major tournament, was not enough to please Twitter’s finest.
Even in the hysterical world of the England national team, it’s hard to remember the last time that the balance between on-field achievement and off-field angst was so far out of whack, and that is unlikely to change unless England win handsomely against Senegal tonight. After a semi-final in 2018 and a final last year, the louder elements of the media, traditional and social, have come to a near unanimous conclusion: Southgate is holding England back.
The received wisdom is that England have an embarrassment of riches in attacking areas. Fine players though they are, we might be confusing the excellence of the Premier League with that of the national team. Since England became good again in 2018, a total of 10,158 voting points have been available at the Ballon d’Or. (Bear with us, this isn’t as boring as it sounds.) Premier League players picked up 3,431 of them, or 33.78%. But English players received only 86, or 0.85%. That’s less than Eden Hazard, and he has barely played in the last three years. For all his imperfections, most obviously his indecisive in-game management, Southgate has significantly overachieved with a squad that is not as talented as the “golden generation” of the mid-2000s.
Senegal, who they face tonight, have been filed under “awkward opponent but one England should beat”. England have never lost to an African team, a statistic that has been cited frequently in the buildup. Despite 30 years of watching players as stylistically diverse as Nwankwo Kanu, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Jay-Jay Okocha and Yaya Touré in the Premier League, there is a perceived homogeneity to African football that doesn’t reflect well on English football’s subconscious.
France are also in action today, taking on a Poland side who qualified for the last 16 with their tail between their legs. It should be a joyous occasion, Poland’s first knockout game at the World Cup since a closer-than-it-sounds 4-0 defeat by Brazil in 1986, but their pitiful performance against Argentina – no shots on target, no ambition, but only one yellow card – has changed the mood. It depends on what happens against France, but when the story of Poland’s 2022 campaign is written, historians may conclude that it would have been better to go out with a bang than through with a whimper.
England have no such choice. Unless they go through with a bang against Senegal, the knives – and the hashtags – will probably be out. RS
Netherlands ease into last eight Since Louis van Gaal took charge the Netherlands are unbeaten in 19 matches. In yesterday’s ruthless 3-1 dismissal of the USA they appeared to be a team playing within themselves, still with plenty of room for improvement in their quarter-final against Argentina – and perhaps beyond. There was a smidgen of defensive vulnerability to be seen when the USA fought back to 2-1 in the second half, but that recovery was swiftly squashed by a third Dutch goal, scored by the exceptional Denzel Dumfries. If nothing else, neutrals should hope the Netherlands stay in the tournament for the mental stimulation being offered by Van Gaal. Every time he speaks it seems to be something amusing, insightful or both. “Yesterday I gave him a big, fat kiss,” Van Gaal said of Dumfries, who was sitting beside him in the press conference. “And I’m going to give him another big, fat kiss.” As always, he meant what he said. LMc
A moment to forget for Australia’s Ryan The manner of Australia’s exit was particularly painful for the goalkeeper Mathew Ryan after his blunder handed Argentina their second goal, slotted in by Julián Álvarez. Kye Rowles’ back pass wasn’t ideal, and hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but the effectiveness and urgency of Argentina’s pressing at that moment meant the Socceroos goalkeeper would have been wise to put his foot through the ball and aim for Row Z. Instead Ryan lost the ball and Álvarez did the rest. The margins would have been tight regardless but when they were chasing the game, Australia showed the vulnerability that clearly exists at the heart of Argentina’s defence. They will wonder what might have been but Ryan, and the Socceroos collectively, can be proud of how they performed in Qatar. LMc
Beyond the football
With drama aplenty in the group stage, stories in the global media have largely focused on the thrilling football – exactly as Qatar’s Supreme Committee and Fifa want it. Sean Ingle reports that the country is so happy with how the tournament has gone that it can be a springboard to hosting the biggest sporting event of all, the Olympic Games. The Guardian understands the country is ready to flex its muscles again and bid to stage the Games in the autumn of 2036, despite having failed with bids three times in the past. Ingle reports there is “growing optimism in Doha” that this World Cup will prove they can host the Olympics. But there will be obstacles, from LGBTQ+ rights to commercial concerns from the IOC after Qatar’s 11th-hour alcohol ban at stadiums. GB
There was disappointment in the US after the national team were brushed aside by the Netherlands. “The subpar play from practically the entire team counts as a major disappointment,” wrote Jeff Carlisle for ESPN. In the Washington Post, Steven Goff wrote: “The US men’s team had reached the knockout stage with a blend of defensive excellence, precocious poise and unflinching confidence – but these things were missing [on] Saturday.”
In Australia, journalists digesting the Socceroos’ early-morning exit were more sanguine. “One piece of genius from the greatest player of all time, and a rare mistake from one of Australia’s most loyal servants. In a sport defined by razor-thin margins, sometimes, that’s just the way it goes,” accepted Vince Rugari in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Guardian’s own Emma Kemp wrote: “This was not a bad performance. It was a very good performance with all the makings of another upset; the moving mass of blue-and-white tension in the stands confirmed it to be so.”
No social media post was more gratefully received by the world of football than the one posted by Pelé on Instagram. After a day of reports that the Brazil legend was receiving end-of-life care, Pelé shared a positive update from his hospital, adding that he felt “strong” and “with a lot of hope”. The 82-year-old, still the only player to win three World Cups in his career, will continue treatment, and we wish him well. NMc
Elsewhere, plenty of people enjoyed Luis Suárez bawling his eyes out after Uruguay were dumped out of the World Cup. The former Liverpool forward sat on the bench for the final 24 minutes (plus an age of injury time) after being replaced by Edinson Cavani. He went through most of the emotions available to humanity; happiness, fear and eventually just tears, partially hidden behind his light blue shirt. Patrice Evra later liked an Instagram post of Suárez looking like his mother had just thrown a beloved teddy bear into a skip. It is not the first time Suárez has cut onions after a football match, allowing for a clever ranking system. WU
France v Poland (Round of 16, 3pm GMT, BBC1) “They [Poland] have a hardcore of players with good experience,” Didier Deschamps said in his pre-match press conference. “There is [Wojciech] Szczesny, [Kamil] Glik, [Robert] Lewandowski and you have to respect what this team does, they deserve to be there. Szczesny was decisive.” The France head coach knows their last-16 opponents have enough quality to cause an upset – and some “hardcore” individuals with enough experience to rile France. Szczesny has been in fine form in Qatar, while Lewandowski has broken his World Cup duck and will be confident of causing problems for the French centre-backs. France’s second string were appalling against Tunisia, a sign they Deschamps does not have much in reserve. If Poland can keep it tight until deep into the game, they will hope to crank up the pressure on the reigning champions. WU
England v Senegal (Round of 16, 7pm GMT, ITV1) Senegal are missing a number of key players – and potentially their head coach Aliou Cissé due to illness – for this most vital of games. Sadio Mané, Cheikhou Kouyaté and Idrissa Gueye are all missing through a mixture of injury and suspension. Not only are they quality players but possess incredible experience, which will be sorely missed. Their replacements face a tough job to defeat an England team in good form. Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye has already been given a chance in Mané’s absence and impressed in the victory over Ecuador. Nampalys Mendy of Leicester City is another who has knowledge of the opponents thanks to his Premier League employers. Although not a regular for club or country, he has the skills to irritate England’s midfielders, while Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly will be solid behind him. It might not be the optimum Senegal team but there is enough to cause problems to England, who need to avoid complacency. WU
Player to watch
Iliman Ndiaye When England take on Senegal, they ought to watch out for the lad from Bramall Lane. A non-league youth player with Boreham Wood three years ago, Ndiaye has come a long way since signing for Sheffield United in 2019. An unused substitute against the Netherlands, he made a second-half cameo against Qatar and, 10 minutes after coming on, danced through three attempted tackles before laying on an assist for Bamba Dieng. Having started the win against Ecuador and produced a lively performance, the 22-year-old has grown in stature as the tournament has gone on. Even if Aliou Cissé decides to use him from the bench, he could be a threat. WU
Japan’s success in topping Group E ahead of Spain and Germany has surprised their next opponents as much as anyone. “We did not expect this,” said the Croatia midfielder Lovro Majer before the last-16 meeting on Monday evening. “I think hardly anyone expected that, but hats off to Japan. They showed that it is not names that are playing, but what is more important is heart and courage.” Japan defeated Germany despite having 29% possession, while they overcame Spain with just 22%. “Possession means nothing in football today,” said Josip Juranovic, the Croatia right-back, when those stats were put to him. “They play very well as a team and they are fast. But we showed against Canada we can deal with quick teams.” WM
If France need a lesson in how not to deal with a second-round tie against outwardly moderate continental peers, they only need look back 17 months. A Euro 2020 assignment against Switzerland in front of a Covid-reduced crowd in Bucharest did little to raise the pulse on paper and perhaps that was the problem: although they belatedly sprang into life going forward it was a different story at the other end, a late collapse leading proceedings towards a shootout and Kylian Mbappé missing the decisive kick.
There are parallels with the task they face against Poland on Sunday. Few really expect a thriller, especially those who have watched Czeslaw Michniewicz’s team over the past fortnight, and the risk is that a predicted slog may carry a sting. This time France need to be fully switched on, heeding the lessons rehearsed during last year’s post-tournament inquest.
“We talked about that a lot, particularly in the months following the European Championship, and it is a factor that comes into play,” Hugo Lloris, speaking on Saturday, admitted of the Switzerland defeat. “For such an important match you can’t afford to relax and lose your concentration. Everything has to work.”
That means slipping back into the well-oiled groove that took them emphatically past Australia and, not without a wobble or two, a Denmark side who have fallen by the wayside. They cannot claim to be leggy: Didier Deschamps was perfectly happy to take the post-match rap on Wednesday when a misshapen and patternless side lost to Tunisia, because all bar two of his preferred starters had been given most of the afternoon off. Mbappé, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé and company are among the most rested stars in a sapping, breakneck tournament and will be expected to make it count.
“You can’t just wait for your opponent – you have to be on the front foot,” said Lloris, who will equal Lilian Thuram’s record of 142 caps for Les Bleus when he retakes his place in goal. “We need to give everything and, when we get a chance, take these opportunities.”
They must find enough players in the form to do so against a Poland side Deschamps said “like defending” and will, in particular, hope some weight can be taken off the shoulders of Mbappé. Sometimes it feels as if the Paris Saint-Germain forward is content to solve everything alone but that is no path to retaining the trophy.
Perhaps it is Griezmann’s time to step back up. He has featured in 70 consecutive games for France, a remarkable feat, and international football has sometimes appeared a refuge from patchy club fortunes in the past two years. But he has not scored in his past dozen, even if that feels a harsh conclusion given the bizarre disallowing of a late equaliser after coming on against Tunisia; a repeat of 2018, when three of his four goals came in the knockout stage, would be welcome.
Deschamps has learned that the secret to cajoling the best from Griezmann is tough love or, at least, tough like. “I’m not going to talk about love but if you don’t like your players it’s going to be very difficult,” he said. “If I don’t like them I don’t select them for the squad in the first place. For Antoine and some others we know each other and trust each other very well, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be frank with him and give him advice he might not always appreciate.”
The danger in that search for all-round cutting edge lies in the potential for defensive neglect, as evidenced against Switzerland. That is particularly risky when you face Robert Lewandowski, who is served the thinnest of gruel in this Poland team but leaves no doubt through actions, deeds and words that his second and final World Cup means everything. Lewandowski was visibly emotional upon breaking his duck at this level against Saudi Arabia; the sands of time are running against him and every half-chance will be laden with meaning.
“You have to try and restrict his influence in the game,” Deschamps said. “The less he receives the ball, the less he can do. He’s a very clever player, technically very gifted, and he knows how to use his body. He didn’t get the ball a lot in the group stage but with just one chance he will be very dangerous.”
Putting aside the need for both teams to spread the burden, Lewandowski’s face-off with Mbappé has the potential to intrigue. “They are not the same age, or similar in other respects,” Deschamps pointed out, while acknowledging the piquancy of the tussle. He knows that denying Lewandowski oxygen should get half the job done for France; should Poland smother Mbappé then, even considering France’s injury woes, there are further sharp instruments to call upon.
Lloris steered conversation away from Mbappé and towards his own counterpart Wojciech Szczesny, who is having an outstanding tournament and contrived Poland’s only highlight against Argentina with an astounding penalty save from Lionel Messi. “He is playing a magnificent tournament,” Lloris offered, and the thought occurred that if Szczesny is able to cause Messi pain he is able to inflict a repeat of last summer’s misery on Mbappé, too.
It makes sense, then, that France have been brushing up on their spot-kicks in training. “If a penalty is well taken a goalkeeper has little chance of stopping it,” Lloris said. “But there are goalkeepers who are very strong in this situation and sometimes they have little secrets they don’t like to share.”
France, who have England or Senegal in their quarter-final sights, hope the mystery of that shock in the Romanian capital has been comprehensively put behind them by the time the weekend is out.
Three games into their World Cup campaign, 11 games into 2022, 79 games into Gareth Southgate’s reign, the question remains unanswered: are England actually any good?
To which there are probably two answers. The first is simple: yes, reasonably. They finished top of their group. They were joint top-scorers alongside Spain. They kept two clean sheets. The second is a weary sigh as any discussion of England is immediately submerged by hackneyed debates about arrogance and expectation, set against a backdrop of implausible ideals of breezy attacking perfection. What even is good?
Belgium, their golden generation well and truly past it, were dreadful at this World Cup. They scored one goal, were outplayed in two of their three games and looked utterly fed up in the third. As Roberto Martínez tearfully announced he would not be staying on as manager, batting away questions from the media that ranged from gently disappointed to nakedly antagonistic, the temptation for an outsider was to wonder just what people expect.
At the 2018 World Cup, Belgium played superbly to beat Brazil in the quarter-final before losing to the eventual champions, France. At Euro 2020, with Kevin De Bruyne struggling with injury, they lost their quarter-final to the eventual champions, Italy. If that is failure, very few people in any walk of life have ever been anything else. This may have been an extraordinarily gifted generation, but other countries have good players too.
For Southgate, then, is anything short of winning the World Cup failure? Perhaps not even that would be enough. Although Alf Ramsey, the one England manager to win something, was hailed in the moment, it wasn’t long before he was being blamed for ushering in a culture of negativity, the radicalism of his approach overlooked or unrecognised; reticent and repressed he may have been, but Ramsey was a revolutionary nonetheless.
Southgate’s record far outstrips every England coach since. He has taken England to two of the six semi-finals they have reached. He is responsible for five of their 14 victories in knockout games at major tournaments. Yet still the mood since the Euros final has been grouchy. He’s too negative. He has to take the handbrake off. He has to unleash this great glut of forwards. Why, oh why, oh why is there no place for [insert name of Premier League creator du jour here]? History will look back and ask why [delete as appropriate: Phil Foden/Marcus Rashford/Jack Grealish/Mason Mount/Bukayo Saka] was left on the bench.
It’s all nonsense, of course. Major tournaments are short. Freakish things happen. Far too much is read into individual games. For years Germany got to semis and beyond largely by dint of being German. Then, 20 years ago, they decided they actually wanted to be good at football as well. They created the dominant way of thinking about the game and yet have gone out in the group stage in the last two tournaments.
In Qatar they were so befuddled their hopes came down to Niclas Füllkrug, a journeyman striker apparently selected because he was the nearest thing anybody could find in the modern Bundesliga to Horst Hrubesch. It’s not ill luck, Hansi Flick said, it’s inability. Well, perhaps, but it was also ill luck. Should the whole Reboot be rethought for the sake of eight minutes of weirdness against Japan – in which they conceded twice – that ended up mattering only because Spain had three minutes of weirdness against Japan in which they conceded twice?
It is often asked before tournaments what would represent success. A semi-final? A quarter-final? But that’s an inadequate metric. A team can play appallingly and go deep thanks to good fortune and a kind draw. Or a team can play brilliantly, delight the world, yet be defeated early in a classic against another great side, or be undone by bad luck, or implode. Denmark of 1986, all mullets and attacking vigour, linger in the consciousness as one of the great World Cup sides; the England of 2006, a sad gloop of barely distinguishable games overshadowed by the hedonism of Baden-Baden, do not: yet that England went further in the competition.
Yet after the penalty shootout defeats of 1990, 1996 and 1998, there has been a sense that England were done with heroic failure. Give us a trophy and never mind how. In that context ‘good’ is probably too vague a term. Do England look like they could win the tournament? Perhaps, but these things are best judged in retrospect. There are exceptions – Spain in 2010, despite their opening defeat, or West Germany in 1990, maybe Brazil in 2002 if only because of the haste with which rivals fell away – but few World Cup winners have looked like champions all the way.
Four years ago, France needed their wobble against Argentina; four years before that, it took the near loss against Algeria and Jogi Löw’s contemplative run along the beach in Rio to set Germany on the path to glory; in 2006, Italy only seemed credible contenders after their two extra-time goals against Germany in the semi-final.
Groups are for getting through but, for what it’s worth, England had a better group-stage record than any winner since Brazil 20 years ago. There are positive signs. Harry Maguire may have become a term of ridicule in the Ghanaian parliament but his partnership with John Stones has looked a lot more secure than was feared. Southgate has often failed to made decisive changes during games but against the USA and Wales his tweaks had a positive impact. England have often been over-reliant on Harry Kane to score goals but in Qatar they have had six different scorers, none of them Kane – who has nonetheless played a key role with three assists.
Brazil, Spain and France have all produced periods of football that seem beyond anything England are capable of, but they have all had dips as well. Argentina, fuelled almost entirely by the Lionel Messi narrative, have spluttered, only really getting going against a supine Poland. The Netherlands seem still to be waiting for Memphis Depay to recover fitness. Portugal plod on in the unmoving shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego, aided by a couple of odd penalties. Croatia, by their manager Zlatko Dalic’s assessment after the 0-0 draw against Belgium, are finally “exhausted”.
But the truth is that any of the sides in the last 16 could beat England, and England could beat any of the sides in the last 16. Given Southgate’s preference for a back three when he envisages a battle for possession, England probably haven’t even yet played the shape they will use against the best opponents.
Are they any good? It’s far too early to tell – and may be for some time.
Antoine Griezmann has reiterated his support for the LGBTQ+ community in the buildup to France’s last-16 World Cup tie with Poland and suggested he feels conflicted playing in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal.
Griezmann has been vocal in his support for LGBTQ+ people and said he was “proud” when the A-League player Josh Cavallo became the first active openly gay male footballer in the world last year. In May, the Blackpool teenager Jake Daniels became the first male footballer in the UK to come out as gay since 1990.
In 2019 the Atlético Madrid forward was the cover star of Têtu, a gay magazine, telling the French publication: “Homophobia isn’t an idea, it’s a crime.” At the time he added: “If a gay footballer wants to come out, he may not have all the players on his side, but he will have me! It is up to us, parents, to educate our children so that they grow up in a less homophobic and less sexist world.”
Griezmann previously said he sympathised with players who “do not come out of the closet because they are afraid”. On Friday Griezmann was asked whether he was embarrassed playing in Qatar after being outspoken on LGBTQ+ rights. “Embarrassed? Yes and no,” he replied. “It doesn’t matter where I am, that community will always have my support. I’m a footballer, that’s my job. I’m paid for playing football and I do it with pride. All my respect is there for [the LGBTQ+ community].”
Griezmann had earlier joked that Kylian Mbappé was “irreproachable” after his glittering start to the tournament and insisted the 23-year-old has immersed himself into the France squad since they were crowned world champions in Russia four years ago. Mbappé is a contender for the Golden Boot after scoring three of France’s six goals before they face Poland on Sunday hoping to advance to the quarter-finals and avoid a repeat of their last-16 exit at Euro 2020.
“Kylian is not the same player or the same personality right now,” Griezmann said when asked about the differences between Mbappe at this World Cup and the last. “On top of that we see him a lot more in the group, in the training he’s a lot more present, he talks a lot, he is very important for us. Every gesture that he does on or off pitch is going to be closely watched by the journalists, by the fans, and by his teammates too. He is irreproachable,” he added, smiling.
Griezmann said France need to guard against complacency after coming unstuck against Switzerland on penalties last year. “I think maybe we were a bit too relaxed against Switzerland,” he said. “We were leading 3-1 and we thought we had won. But in big competitions like that it is difficult, there is no easy opponent. Against Poland it is going to be the same. It is going to be complicated. We have to prepare well and nothing is guaranteed. I think we’re on the right path now.”
Many TV viewers in France awoke to a shock on Thursday morning, belatedly discovering that the world champions had lost 1-0 Tunisia having turned off thinking that Antoine Griezmann had levelled the game. The broadcaster TF1 cut to an advert break after Griezmann’s shot deep into stoppage time crossed the line, believing the final whistle had sounded in the aftermath, and prompting millions of viewers to switch off.
Instead the referee, Matthew Conger, was belatedly called to consult the pitchside monitor by VAR and contentiously ruled out the late strike because of Griezmann’s offside position earlier in play. But TF1 had left its audience with footage of France celebrations and Tunisian heartbreak, continuing tournament coverage with its World Cup Mag show rather than returning to the stadium.
Ultimately, the 1-0 defeat did not change much because France still finished top of Group D and a Tunisia victory was not enough for the north African side to overtake Australia in second place. However a much-changed France losing their unbeaten record in Qatar still came as a surprise to many fans.
TF1 issued an apology for its hasty exit on social media, and on the Mag show the journalist Grégoire Margotton explained the channel’s error to the viewers that remained. “We were convinced that it was over, everyone was going back to the locker room,” Margotton said. “It took a long, long time and Mr Conger, the New Zealand referee, went to consult the VAR. He was told after a very long time that there was an offside by Antoine Griezmann and that goal was therefore disallowed.”
However this may not be the end of the story, with the French Football Federation saying it is ready to file a complaint to Fifa on the grounds that the last-gasp equaliser had been incorrectly ruled out.
The FFF said in a statement: “We are writing a complaint after Antoine Griezmann’s goal was, in our opinion, wrongly disallowed. This complaint has to be filed within 24 hours after the final whistle.”
The FFF did not elaborate on its complaint, but there are two points of contention. Griezmann was clearly offside when Aurélien Tchouaméni crossed but latched on to ball only after the Tunisia defender Montassar Talbi’s attempted clearance, by which point he was onside. Also the game had restarted from kick-off, with the referee then appearing to blow for full time, before Conger went to review the footage. Ifab, football’s law-making body, states that if a game has been restarted after a goal is given VAR cannot intervene, so there was an error in procedure.
France salvaging a 1-1 draw would not have changed the group standings, with Tunisia still finishing third and the world champions top and facing Poland in the last 16.