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.
Weaknesses England 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.