England will face defending champions France in the World Cup quarter-finals – remarkably the first time the two nations have ever faced off in a knockout match in the competition’s history.
Depleted by injuries to key stars such as Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante heading into the tournament, France have still gone about their business impressively – thanks in part to some glowing displays from leading man Kylian Mbappe.
A slightly worrying loss to Tunisia in the group stages aside, France have looked like the force many expected them to be at the World Cup in Qatar.
French coach Didier Deschamps rested several key players for that match and his side had already qualified for the last 16 – going on to comfortably beat Poland 3-1 en route to a huge showdown with England.
The Three Lions have also put in impressive displays so far, with Gareth Southgate’s side yet to lose a fixture, winning every game bar a 0-0 draw against a well-organised USA side in the group stages.
After a shaky start, they turned out an eye-catching performance to topple African champions Senegal 3-0 in the last 16.
The England manager has a plethora of options in attack, but less so in defence.
Perennially under immense pressure in the job, Southgate has never been afraid to take tactical risks based on the opposition he faces, often forgoing formidable talents and winning formulas in the name of grinding out results.
Most recently he has come under much public scrutiny for taking too pragmatic an approach and not utilising the clear talents of players like Phil Foden.
He has also been accused of over-analysing opponents and has been known to flick between 4-3-3 and 5-4-1 formations in the past, with mixed results.
While near enough impossible to predict, here’s how we think England will line up in the titanic clash against Les Bleus on Saturday. We have a feeling Southgate will opt for five at the back.
Predicted England XI to face France:
GK – Jordan Pickford
It’s hard to envisage a world where Southgate drops Pickford for this match, barring a catastrophic injury or illness. The Everton stopper has been in good form so far in Qatar and has rarely put a foot wrong, making a few decent saves against the likes of the USA and Senegal that have somewhat gone under the radar. He also has a great penalty-saving pedigree, should the match go the distance.
RB – Kieran Trippier
The Newcastle right-back will make his way back into the side as Southgate reverts to five at the back to offset France’s attacking threat. His experience, calmness and set pieces will certainly come in handy, and it certainly won’t hurt to have some help from an extra defender to deal with the trouble Mbappe will likely cause.
RCB – Kyle Walker
On paper, the Manchester City right-back seems ready-made to be England’s answer to dealing with the pace and trickery of Mbappe. He’s played on the right of a back three for England before – including in tournaments for the Three Lions, and he’ll no doubt relish the challenge of a footrace with the Frenchman. He’ll have plenty of back-up and will also be a reassuring presence for his fellow defenders against a dangerous and creative French forward line.
CB – John Stones
Walker’s clubmate Stones has been a picture of calm for England’s defence so far at the World Cup. The Three Lions boast one of the best defensive records at the tournament and the “Barnsley Beckenbauer” has been integral to that. He’s able to pass well and bring the ball out from the back, and he’ll be on hand to sweep up any knock-downs from Olivier Giroud that centre-back partner Harry Maguire may lose.
LCB – Harry Maguire
The polarising Manchester United man has done well to silence many of his critics with some solid displays in the first four games, with some even labelling him as England’s player of the tournament so far. This will no doubt be his sternest test yet, but his aerial ability in both boxes is invaluable, and he’ll provide an excellent challenge to Giroud’s aerial prowess. The safety net of a five-man defence may also quell any nerves lingering in the back of his mind.
LB – Luke Shaw
England’s only recognised left-back in the squad, Southgate is relying on Shaw to continue delivering the level he has so far. He’s had a quiet start to the season at Old Trafford but does seem to step up when he dons an England shirt, and his link-up play and overlaps so far in Qatar have been devastating, regardless of who it is he’s joining on that side of the pitch. He’ll have to keep his guard up against the tricky Ousmane Dembele, though.
CM – Declan Rice
The West Ham man has low-key been one of England’s key players in Qatar, forging a steely and impressive relationship with Jude Bellingham in midfield. A bout of illness has prevented him from training with the squad for the past couple of days, and Southgate will no doubt be hoping he’ll get the all-clear prior to the match. If not, don’t be surprised to see Jordan Henderson retain his place in there instead.
CM – Jude Bellingham
The Birmingham boy wonder has seemingly taken football fans by storm at this World Cup, with players, pundits and fans licking their lips at the ceiling-less potential of the Borussia Dortmund midfielder. While quiet in the game against the USA, he put in some unreal performances against Iran and Wales, showing maturity and ability rarely seen in a 19-year-old. Against Senegal, he looked completely unplayable across the pitch. It’s unfathomable that he’d be dropped.
LW – Phil Foden
The man under the spotlight – at least from the English press. The Manchester City player has been in and out of the starting line-up but has performed well when featured, scoring against Wales and setting up Harry Kane’s goal in the last 16. A unique player with that special something about him, his incredible first touch, trickery, eye for a pass and even his speed make him a threat against any side – but Southgate has plenty of options in those areas. However, he could very well be the key to unlocking a well-organised French defence and seems to be forging a great relationship with Kane.
RW – Bukayo Saka
While harsh (again) on Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka has been something of a surprise package for many in Qatar. Arguably playing in England’s most competitive position on the pitch, Saka has taken his excellent club form at Arsenal into this World Cup, twisting defenders each and every way and getting himself on the scoresheet. His electric pace and immense energy levels could cause some major problems for Theo Hernandez, who may have to resort to some Chiellini-esque tactics to stop the 21-year-old.
ST – Harry Kane
The England captain may not be setting the goalscoring charts alight this time round but with three assists to his name, he’s currently leading the pack for passes leading directly to goals (alongside Portugal’s Bruno Fernandes). After finally scoring his first of the tournament against Senegal, he’ll no doubt be hungry for more – but he’s also displaying his leadership qualities while spearheading a youthful England attack. It’ll be interesting to see what tricks he has up his sleeve when facing long-time Tottenham teammate Hugo Lloris in the France goal.