‘Operation stop Mbappé’: how Kyle Walker can be England’s ‘secret weapon’ against France

Three Lions prepare to go head-to-head with the World Cup holders

England defender Kyle Walker and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford 
England defender Kyle Walker and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford 
(Image credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Gareth Southgate has taken England to the semi-finals and final of two major championships during his six years as head coach. It’s an impressive record, but now the Three Lions are preparing for what is perhaps the biggest challenge of his tenure yet – a World Cup quarter-final against France, the reigning champions.

“Make no mistake”, this last-eight clash will be a “gargantuan test” for Southgate’s team, said Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail. France “could well be the best team here” in Qatar, and are certainly the “best of the European contingent”.

Didier Deschamps’s world champions are in “free-scoring form”, said Nick Ames in The Guardian, but they have been “ravaged by injuries” and are “unbalanced in some areas”. They do, however, possess one “significant” strength: Kylian Mbappé, the World Cup’s top scorer, with five goals so far. As he showed in the last-16 against Poland, the 23-year-old can “illuminate the dreariest of games in an instant”.

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If England are to knock out the holders and reach the semi-finals, they will have to nullify the threat of France’s talented attack. “Operation stop Mbappé” was one of the headlines on the front page of the i newspaper this morning, a theme that has been a major talking point ahead of Saturday’s match at the Al Bayt Stadium.

Kylian Mbappé leads the World Cup golden boot race with five goals

Kylian Mbappé leads the World Cup golden boot race with five goals
(Image credit: Berengui/DeFodi Images/Getty Images)

‘Right, let’s have a race’

The Three Lions looked “mightily impressive” in their 3-0 win over Senegal in the round of 16, said Kobe Tong on GiveMeSport. “But it’s one thing to beat the champions of Africa and another thing to beat the champions of the world.” And one of the “biggest threats” that Southgate’s men will face is the “sheer amount of pace” that France boast out wide.

England’s defence have been in decent form in Qatar, conceding just two goals in four games. However, they will need to be at their very best against the likes of Mbappé, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé – who all offer different traits in Les Bleus’s front-line.

Mbappé “may not get it all his own way” though, said Lewis Winter in the Daily Express, because Southgate and England have their own “secret weapon” – Manchester City defender Kyle Walker. Former England striker Theo Walcott has argued that while the French star is a “different beast”, he could “struggle” against Walker’s “physicality”.

Ex-England defenders Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville agreed that Walker’s pace is key for the Three Lions’s hopes. He’s the “only defender on the planet” right now that will “stand there and go to Mbappé, ‘right, 1-v-1, let’s have a race’”, Ferdinand said on his Vibe with Five YouTube show.

In terms of “physicality, pace and experience”, Neville couldn’t think of anyone better able to match Mbappé than 32-year-old Walker. “That’s not to say he’ll keep him quiet for 90 minutes as Mbappé is sensational and special,” he said on Sky Sports. “But we have a chance as Walker can match him in certain areas.”

Whatever happens in this World Cup quarter-final, it promises to be a “game of a lifetime”, Neville added. “They don’t come around in your life very often. They are big moments. I can’t wait.”

England vs. France takes place on Saturday at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar. Kick-off is at 7pm (GMT) and the match is live on ITV.

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Mike Starling is the digital features editor at The Week, where he writes content and edits the Arts & Life and Sport website sections and the Food & Drink and Travel newsletters. He started his career in 2001 in Gloucestershire as a sports reporter and sub-editor and has held various roles as a writer and editor at news, travel and B2B publications. He has spoken at a number of sports business conferences and also worked as a consultant creating sports travel content for tourism boards. International experience includes spells living and working in Dubai, UAE; Brisbane, Australia; and Beirut, Lebanon.