England v France: a heavyweight contest to define the Southgate era

Darkness falls quickly in Qatar. The night steals in like a kidnapper, wrapping its shroud around the desert like a bag over the head. Sunsets barely last long enough to choose an Instagram filter. On Saturday evening, either England or France will also discover that in these parts, oblivion descends with a devastating brutality.

Come 10pm local time, what has gone before will cease to matter. To the loser, the ruthless and often scintillating football that brought them to this quarter-final will be of no consolation at all. One of Harry Kane or Kylian Mbappé is a fraud. One of Didier Deschamps or Gareth Southgate is a moron. One of Declan Rice or Aurélien Tchouaméni is about to be “painfully exposed at this level”. Either the Football Association needs to take a long hard look at its French counterpart, or vice versa. Two hours of football decides the lot. Sorry, that’s just the way it goes.

That we all willingly buy into this quasi-fiction is what lends World Cup knockout football its maniacal power. A microscopic VAR call; an act of unrepeatable brilliance; a lucky deflection off the backside of Olivier Giroud; a penalty kick. On these slippery wheels are broken the work of four years. And for all the inevitable pre-match prophesy and post-match autopsy, England v France feels impossible to call with any confidence.

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Tempo is one reason for this. Unlike Spain or Argentina, France and England lack a recognisable motif, a single consistent energy. This is both blessing and curse. Few teams rival France’s ability to accelerate through the gears, to turn patience to impatience, ice to fire, verse to chorus.

They sit, they settle, they absorb, they go quiet. Then they attack with sudden and concussive speed, a sensory overload that short-circuits a defence in seconds. But the rest of the time they give you a chance.

England have also played this tournament at two speeds. For 30 minutes against Wales and Senegal, and for 90 minutes against the United States, they looked bereft and maladroit: a team of spoons in a world of pork chops. But in their moments of clarity, when the wingers dovetail and the midfielders storm the keep, few teams can withstand them. Southgate’s substitutions have often been dazzlingly effective.

Mbappé and Kane personify this dichotomy. Mbappé will consciously harness his efforts during a game, saving his legs for the eight or nine full-gas sprints that will capture his evening. He barely defends. He will not come back at set pieces. Incredibly, he has not touched the ball in France’s defensive third all tournament. But he has had 42 touches in the opposition penalty area: more than Kane, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka combined.

Kylian Mbappé races away from Matty Cash during France’s victory against Poland
Kylian Mbappé saves his sprints for when they will be most effective in each match. Photograph: François Nel/Getty Images

Kane’s extremes manifest differently. Few strikers are better at disrupting the balance of a defence: holding the ball up, dropping deep, releasing swanky diagonal passes for Saka and Foden. But when he quietens, England fumble a little. Opponents push up the pitch, squeeze the space, force England to punt up the flanks. If Kyle Walker’s supervision of Mbappé is the most important duel on the pitch, then Tchouaméni against Kane is a close second.

Here the roles of Bellingham and Antoine Griezmann will be vital: sniffing out space, creating supremacies out wide, making dangerous runs beyond the backline, snuffing out counterattacks at source. With Giroud and Kane in retreat, and assuming an unchanged England 4-3-3, the midfield essentially comprises two diamonds. Kane and Bellingham will try to overload Tchouaméni; Griezmann and Giroud will do the same with Rice. Jordan Henderson and Adrien Rabiot will merrily slap each other around all night.

A tight, structured game probably suits England; if it stretches, France can usually be trusted to score one goal more than you.

Where France hold the clear advantage is in pedigree, pacing, knowing how these games are won. They have faced teams as good as England; Southgate’s England have never faced a team as good as this France. France know how to defend a lead and they know how to chase one. Their squad, many of whom won in Russia in 2018, drips with big-game panache. Ten Champions League medals to England’s three tells a story; when it comes to losing finals, meanwhile, England lead 10 to six.

Have England learned from their mistakes? All three of their tournament exits (Croatia 2018, Netherlands 2019, Italy 2021) came after peaking too soon, mislaying the balance between aggression and caution. Here, the very opposite has been true: stay in the game, build the layers, identify the problems before you solve them. Really this has been the story of Southgate’s England: a journey of refinement, machine learning, fitful growth. Talent has been added. Talent has been discarded. Systems have been trialled and junked. But every misstep has toughened them a little.

And look, it takes time to crack this thing. Spain went through cycles of underachievement before striking perfection. Joachim Löw’s Germany lost two semi-finals and a final before winning in 2014. Deschamps’ side evolved over three tournaments: a promising run snuffed out by savvier opponents (Germany 2014), followed by an agonising defeat on home soil (Portugal 2016) and finally the triumph of 2018. Anyone reducing this elephantine process to the crude binary of “handbrake on, handbrake off” has probably never won a thing in their lives.

Nonetheless, there is a kind of boss-level finality here. Win or lose, this game is likely to define the Southgate era. More so because it is a purer footballing test, stripped of the emotional heft of a Wembley final, the blithe naivety of 2018, the historical baggage of England v Germany.

Toxic nationalism is mercifully sparse in this fixture, even if politically the rivalry dates back much further. England fans do not crow about the hundred years war or sing about “Ten French Archers”. Indeed the role of the crowd should be minimal. Whatever fate befalls England here does so on their terms.

For Deschamps the stakes are equally high. Two early exits in succession would likely mark the end of his decade in charge and his replacement by Zinedine Zidane. It would bring down the curtain on that golden class of 2018: Giroud, Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba, perhaps even Griezmann and N’Golo Kanté. Questions would be asked over the reliance on Mbappé, the culpability of the national federation, perhaps even French football itself, which is battling numerous off-field scandals and an increasingly strained relationship with the public.

All this and more on the line. This is the tournament’s penultimate weekend, but only now does the end feel within touching distance. From Croydon to Créteil, from Doha to Douala, the world will pause for this genuine heavyweight bout. And as any seasoned heavyweight will tell you, the end often comes a little quicker than you think.

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