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How do you stop Kylian Mbappe? Kyle Walker, England primed for titanic World Cup struggle in France match

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Eight minutes into a half-hour media briefing this week, England right-back Kyle Walker received his latest Kylian Mbappe question with a smile that mostly covered the weariness.

“I feel that he’s a top player, I’m not under-estimating that one bit,” Walker said. “But we’re not playing tennis, it’s not a solo sport. It’s a team game.”

That much is indisputably true and from Antonio Griezmann to Phil Foden, through to Adrien Rabiot and Jordan Henderson and all the way back to Hugo Lloris and Jordan Pickford, numerous elite performers will bring their talents to bear when England face France in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final at Al Bayt Stadium.

But in their battle defined by the touchline and the byline rather than the baseline, Mbappe and Walker seem set to serve up a classic.

France’s superstar forward is the frontrunner for the Golden Boot, his five goals at Qatar 2022 having already outstripped his tally of four at Russia 2018, which was capped by a fine strike in the 4-2 final win over Croatia.

MORE: England vs France history: Head-to-head matches at World Cup, last meeting, team records

“We’ve obviously got a player who can deal with that [Mbappe’s threat] as well as anybody,” Southgate said of Walker on the eve of the match, seemingly absolutely relaxed with the hype.

There are many facets to the battle set to unfold, but much of the fascination comes back to one attribute. Raw pace.

Is Kyle Walker faster than Kylian Mbappe?

Most defenders know the game is up when Mbappe gets into full flight. Although England will seek to minimise those scenarios, Walker can certainly hang with him if need be.

According to tracking data collected by FIFA, no player remaining in the competition has recorded a faster on-field speed than Mbappe after he clocked 35.3 kmph against Poland.

Walker is the fastest England player, something he still takes visible pride in as one of the senior member of Southgate’s squad, having reached 34.4 kmph. 

Additionally, the Manchester City defender has shown he is ready to exchange on such terms despite undergoing groin surgery in October. In his two World Cup starts, Walker has faced Wales’ Dan James and Senegal’s Ismail Sarr, two of only eight players to have gone quicker than France’s main man in Qatar.

“As a right-back, the obvious things to the eye are he’s got great speed, he’s strong. In terms of more nuanced things, he doesn’t really dive in,” former City and England Under-21 defender Nedum Onuoha told The Sporting News.

“As he’s gotten older, he reads the game differently. When he was younger he relied more on his physical attributes, whereas now he uses them when he needs to as opposed to using them all the time.”

Another factor building anticipation around the Mbappe-Walker matchup is how their previous duels have played out. Mbappe has met with this combination of physicality and experience three times in the Champions League and it’s not gone fantastically well.

What is Kyle Walker’s record against Kylian Mbappe?

Their first showdown came in the first leg of the 2020/21 Champions League semifinals, where City came from behind to beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 at the Parc des Princes.

Mbappe’s influence on the contest was successfully marginalised by Pep Guardiola’s side. He completed one of two attempted dribbles. For comparison, in that season’s last 16 against Barcelona, he launched into 21 dribbles across the two legs, completing 10 of 11 in a 4-1 romp at Camp Nou.

Fitness might also have been a factor, as a calf injury saw Mbappe remain as an unused substitute during the following week’s second leg in Manchester, where City ran out 2-0 winners.

Later that year, Mbappe was on target at the Etihad Stadium, only to see his goal overturned in a battling 2-1 triumph for the Premier League side, who had lost the earlier group game in Paris 2-0.

One win, two defeats and one goal in three games against Walker is hardly a tale of complete humiliation, but Mbappe would probably hand-pick an alternative opponent to the man he labelled “a tank” in an interview with France Football last year

Walker was only dribbled past once over the course of the three games, although there is a significant caveat to suggestions he has dominated Mbappe. As he mentioned himself this week, Neymar was nominally the left winger in a fluid PSG forward line over the course of those games.

That the mercurial Brazilian was dealt with comprehensively speaks volumes of Walker’s talent and some YouTube accounts have found enough of his duels with Mbappe to knock together some showreel highlights. 

It has been a feature of Walker’s Champions League career at City that he relishes such mano-e-mano situations – from facing down Neymar and Mbappe to pushing his body to the brink against Vinicius Junior and Real Madrid last season.

“He wants people to come at him one versus one,” Onuoha said. “A lot of defenders, they’d prefer it if you didn’t. Whereas, for him, he takes strength from it. It looks like he gets excited by the challenge of going up against someone in a one vs one battle. 

He knows that it’s not just done for the first five, 10 or 15 minutes. He’ll do it throughout the entire match. He takes great pride in somebody not getting past him. If someone does, it, even if it leads to nothing, you’ll see great frustration on his face. It’s definitely something that motivates him in games.

“From a matchup standpoint, not many people will want to go up against him because he has the mental part along with the physical part. That’s what makes him so good.”

How can England stop Kylian Mbappe?

As Walker, Southgate and others have been at pains to point out, however, England are not dealing with a one-man team.

From the attacking capabilities of left-back Theo Hernandez to Griezmann popping up in pockets in his hybrid No.8-cum-No.10 role and Olivier Giroud starring as a regal attacking focal point, France can cause numerous problems in Mbappe’s area of the field.

“He links up really well with Theo Hernandez,” Onuoha said. “Mbappe isolated by himself on the left wing is obviously dangerous but Mbappe plus somebody else creating overloads and little triangles, that’s a far different situation.

“He’s very good at faking to shoot. When it’s someone who’s really good at scoring goals, you can’t assume that he’s not going to shoot. If he looks like he’s going to shoot, you try to block it and he fakes it. Before you know it he’s in the driving seat again.

“Griezmann’s game intelligence is so important because, when Mbappe is out there with a two versus one against him, he’ll float into a space to receive the ball. The moment Griezmann gets the ball, people panic because it’s Griezmann and that’s when you can lose Mbappe.”

But Walker also has a supporting cast of some repute. John Stones is playing inside him at right centre-back. A teammate at City for the past five-and-a-half years, Stones is having another excellent tournament, as he did alongside Walker at the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020. He and Walker are firm friends off the field and know one another’s games inside out.

Then there’s Henderson. Not always the most popular selection in the Twittersphere, the Liverpool captain has won back his place in Southgate’s starting XI and has quietly — or loudly, according to his one-time Sunderland colleague Onuoha — been a revelation.

“I was at the England versus Senegal game. There were things going on away from the ball with Jordan which were significant in changing the way that England played,” he explained. “Seeing him shouting at Bukayo Saka, telling him you’ve got to run in behind. Not asking him, telling him he has to do it.

“Then, all of a sudden they start running in behind a bit more and a two-goal lead comes out of nowhere. The big-game understanding in terms of how to manage any particular situation… you look at Kyle, Jordan and John, they’re playing against the likes of PSG in the Champions League every year. They’re not going to be overawed by the occasion.”

MORE: Watch every World Cup match live with fuboTV (US only free trial)

That combination of collective experience and Walker’s rare gifts will be used to chip away at Mbappe’s considerable armoury, trying to take him to the places where games get hard and all players are made fully aware that no one is perfect.

“It’s about understanding his tendencies,” Onouha added. “He is very, very good but all players have tendencies — the things they like doing and the things that they don’t. Maybe he doesn’t like coming really short for the ball, maybe he doesn’t like going for a diagonal ball. 

“It’s ultimately about watching what he does well and not so well and understanding why that is. Kyle and the England side are more than capable of doing that.”

For all the elements at play, it is Walker’s tendency towards one versus one battles with the best players that explains much of the pre-match fascination around himself and Mbappe. Whatever the outcome, he will relish a duel that most would reasonably dread.


Credit: sportingnews.com

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