During France's last round of matches ahead of the Qatar World Cup, Kylian Mbappe shared his thoughts on where and how he likes to make his runs. He favours playing off a pivotal centre-forward, he hinted, something national duty allows him more readily than his role for his club, Paris-Saint Germain. “It’s different with France than at PSG,” said Mbappe.
That was September, a few days before Kyle Walker, the Manchester City and England defender, suffered an injury grave enough to threaten his fitness for Qatar. Walker’s recovery period would be a headache for Gareth Southgate, the England manager, but there was some comfort in that Walker’s position, right-back, is abundantly covered. After all, there are trusted England internationals with extensive right-back experience at seven of the top eight clubs in the Premier League.
By mid-October, though, Southgate’s worries deepened. He had to exclude from his plans Chelsea’s Reece James, whose energy and expert crossing Southgate favoured in the last four England’s fixtures ahead of the World Cup. James’ knee injury meant a recuperation period that, unlike Walker’s, was too long for him to be in Qatar.
At the same time James’ dreams were shattered, Mbappe was making major headlines in Paris. He felt "betrayed", it was widely reported, by PSG, where he signed a record-breaking new contract in May, in part because he was not being consistently used in his optimum position, attacking from wide on the left.
These various strands of storyline pull together on Saturday when France meet England for a place in the World Cup semi-finals. The fierce focus is inevitably on the inside-left channel patrolled, injury allowing, by Mbappe, Les Bleus’ chief match-winner. It’s the same part of the pitch where English football’s ever-improving talent stream gushes out perhaps the highest concentration of technical excellence.
In his six years in charge of England, Southgate has appreciated his many blessings at right-back. Even before he took over the senior squad, he was under-21 coach, recognising a glut of gifted players at English academies mastering the twin demands of the modern right-back: containment and constructive counter-attack.
As overseer of England’s age-group sides, he would certainly have studied an Under-19s meeting with France in 2016, when a 17-year-old, bullet-fast prodigy named Mbappe was kept at bay by a promising Liverpudlian right-back, Jonjoe Kenny, while a teenaged Kyle Walker-Peters was ready to take over if needed from the bench.
That pair were England’s full-backs in the victorious 2017 Under-20 World Cup. Walker-Peters, now at Southampton, has since won senior caps under Southgate. Kenny, meanwhile, is among those who have made right-backs English football’s most exportable playing commodity. He is now with his second Bundesliga club, Hertha Berlin; Kieran Trippier, a long-term Southgate favourite, has won a Spanish Liga with Atletico Madrid; James Tavernier, of Glasgow Rangers, finished last season’s Europa League as the competition’s top scorer.
England breeze past Senegal
That’s quite a feat for a right-back, although Tavernier has never been in the reckoning for England selection. Southgate already has an exceptional attacking right-back available in Trent Alexander-Arnold, though he regards the Liverpool player's high-class passing and delivery as a stronger part of his game than his defensive positioning.
Had James been fit, Alexander-Arnold, who played, aged 20, at the last World Cup, may have found it harder to make the squad for Qatar, where he has so far appeared only as a substitute.
Some critics argue Alexander-Arnold is underused by England. But the queue for the right-back berth is long, the competition so intense that others of this generation have switched flags. World Cup debuts were made in the last three weeks by West London-born Tariq Lamptey, of Brighton and formerly of England Under-21s, playing for Ghana, country of his heritage; and by West London-born Matty Cash, of Aston Villa, eligible for Poland through his maternal grandmother.
Cash went home after Sunday’s last-16 defeat to France with Mbappe’s jersey as a souvenir – and a warning for whoever next marks the two-goal hero of the 3-1 defeat of Poland. “When he gets the ball, stops and moves, he’s the quickest thing I’ve ever seen,” sighed Cash. “He was burning my legs.”
Walker, with his acceleration, is the principal candidate to marshall Mbappe on Saturday, although some anxious moments against the nimble Ismaila Sarr of Senegal during England’s 3-0 last-16 win suggested the City right-back may not yet be fully into his stride after his two months out injured.
There is also the option, sometimes used by Southgate, of Trippier at right wing-back, with Walker to the right of a back three that could conceivably include two centre-backs who have played at right-back, City’s John Stones and Tottenham's Eric Dier.
Whoever Southgate picks, there’ll be a lingering thought for Reece James, watching from afar a duel with Mbappe he would have relished.
And, if Alexander-Arnold is again on the England bench, a temptation to wonder if his many backers may quietly decide that the chance to mark Mbappe is a privilege best delayed for another day.