For the better part of four years, the England men’s national team have had the talent to be the most exciting, most devastating team in the world. At this World Cup, maybe they finally are?
Six goals scored against (an admittedly distracted) Iran. Three past Wales; three past Senegal. Tied for the highest total in the tournament through four games. Eight different players have scored for England, which is eight times as many as scored for Belgium. The leaders, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford, each with three, haven’t even started every game. Manager Gareth Southgate has mixed and matched his attackers to mostly devastating results, toggling through the likes of Manchester City’s Phil Foden and Jack Grealish and Chelsea’s Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount. James Maddison, who has played zero minutes this tournament, would start for two-thirds of the teams that qualified for the World Cup.
It may need all of the firepower it can muster Saturday when it faces off against reigning champions France and tournament leading scorer Kylian Mbappé, who have put aside their recent struggles and interpersonal squabbles to regain the form that took them to the title in 2018. On paper, it’s the best game of the tournament so far, the first time two genuine favorites have met. (Not sorry, Spain and Germany.)
The stakes here are out of keeping with the overall tenor of this rivalry, surprisingly mild given the proximity of the two nations and how good they each have been for several decades. England and France haven’t met in a World Cup in 40 years. Their past three European Championship meetings ended in two draws and one narrow France win. All four, plus their 1966 World Cup clash, happened in the group stages. These countries fought a war for 116 years against each other, and they’ve never even met in the knockout rounds of a major tournament until now. (Coincidentally, it’s also been 116 years since the first England-France meeting, a 15–0 win for England in 1906.) If they trade goals like they’re capable of, then the wait will have been worth it.
Unfortunately, that may be the last thing either of these managers want. Neither Southgate nor France’s Didier Deschamps are adventurous types. Where they are going, they need roads … and maps and a GPS and a spare tire and an escape route and probably some snacks, just in case. Deschamps won the World Cup in Russia by building a defensively sturdy runway for Mbappé to take off from, and though his team appears to be a little more open in Qatar—there’s no more Blaise Matuidi pinching in from the wing to be an extra defensive midfielder—he’s made up for it by asking Antoine Griezmann to track back more. (Griezmann has matched his combined tackles and interceptions from the last World Cup already, in half the playing time.)
Southgate, on the other hand, attempts to kneecap opposing attacks even at the expense of his team’s. His England has historically kept players deep even when it’s attacking to help recycle the ball and prevent opposing counters, letting the talent of his forwards try to solve problems with little support. Once England takes the lead, it’s very good at exploiting the spaces opponents leave as they push to get a goal, leading to all those routs. That persnickety caution was on full display during the 0–0 draw with the United States. The team can be a flat-track bully.
The dirty secret of this particular vintage of England is that it has made deep runs at the last World Cup and the 2020 Euros without having to beat any very good teams. Its best win on paper is a 2–0 victory over Germany in the Round of 16 at the Euros, the same Germany side that couldn’t get out of its group in 2018 or 2022 at the World Cup. It beat Spain, but in the fall of 2018, and it beat Croatia in the group stage of the Euros last year, but got no wins over Germany or Italy or even Hungary this summer. It lost to Belgium in two relatively pointless games in 2018: the World Cup’s third group stage game when both had already qualified for the knockout rounds and the tournament’s third-place game. It played Croatia close in 2018, but Croatia plays everyone close in the knockout rounds, including Denmark and Russia in that tournament. England lost narrowly to Italy in 2021, just as Austria and Wales did.
The test France will provide is sterner than any of those, one that will scrutinize the limits and efficacy of everything Southgate has attempted to build. You want to lock the game away and keep opponents from threatening on the counter? Good luck with Mbappé. England has developed a method for hunting tigers and so far has only tested it successfully against lynxes and ocelots. Now heavy footsteps are padding its way. William Blake is being summoned to investigate. Did he who made Harry Maguire make Mbappé?
However, the reverse is also true. France have coasted, but they’ve done so against unimpressive opposition. The most dangerous team in its group—Denmark, which France hadn’t beaten in its past three tries—flopped winless out of the tournament. Poland was an overmatched Round of 16 opponent. Les Bleus had a more difficult path in the last World Cup, beating Argentina and Belgium where England got Colombia and Sweden, but its new pieces haven’t played a game like this for their country before. We assumed with all the drama swirling around the team that France would end up beating itself. But England is one of the few teams that can beat France even if the latter plays well, the rare team that might be able to score enough goals to keep up with Mbappé.
Doing that will be a lot easier if it gets the first goal, allowing it to focus on containing France rather than chasing an equalizer. There’s a blueprint for this, and it’s one Southgate might not like to use against an opponent so dangerous. England’s first goals against both Iran and Senegal, the ones that opened the floodgates, came when one extra runner out of midfield—Jude Bellingham in the first case, Jordan Henderson in the second—burst into the box uncovered. The move left space in behind, but it gave England someone new to aim for instead of the same, predictable targets. The players took a risk; their talented teammates found them. The game was afoot.
Both goals were sparked by Bellingham, who after a disappointing game against the U.S. is back to being perhaps the tournament’s brightest young player, the key to England balancing its habitual caution in one direction with additional danger in the other. So confident is he on the ball, charging forward at speed and drawing defenders in, that his teammates almost can’t help but charge into the lanes he opens.
Bellingham is so smooth that even I find it hard to root against him, and it would be a shame if Southgate pulls the emergency brake on him here. If Bellingham gets England to go for it against France, and it succeeds in doing so, England will finally live up to its potential.