Ahead of its World Cup quarterfinal against France, England has a problem to solve. Namely, how to stop the tournament’s top scorer, Kylian Mbappé, from adding to his tally.
“Nineteen other teams in [France’s] Ligue 1 – and others in the Champions League – have been waiting for a solution,” French midfielder Youssouf Fofana told reporters this week when asked how to contain the Paris Saint-Germain star.
“The truth will come on the pitch. We have full confidence in Kylian.”
Mbappé has been on sensational form in Qatar, scoring five goals in four games – two more than any other player.
That included a brilliant double against Poland in the round of 16 – the first a booming strike into the top-left corner, then the second a curling effort into the opposite corner.
But the 23-year-old has showcased more than just clinical finishing at the World Cup, terrorizing opponents with his phenomenal speed and ability to get behind the defensive line.
According to FIFA, Mbappé hit a top speed of 35.3 kilometers per hour (about 22 miles per hour) against Poland – among the fastest speeds recorded at the tournament so far. His teammate, forward Ousmane Dembélé, clocked 35kph (21.7mph) in the same game.
More crucial to France’s attack, though, is how rapidly the likes of Mbappé and Dembélé can accelerate.
“In a field sport, acceleration is by far the key element,” sports scientist Simon Brundish told CNN Sport. “Top speed is an opportunity … How often do you get the chance to run at full speed for 30 meters in the first place on a football pitch? It’s not very common.
“It’s how you can go from zero to five meters fastest and zero to 10 meters fastest – that’s the thing that separates you.”
But England may have an answer to the pace of Mbappé. Kyle Walker has long been regarded as one of the fastest fullbacks in football, and the Manchester City star is expected to line up opposite the fleet-footed Frenchman on Saturday.
Indeed, former England striker Gary Lineker went as far as to suggest that Walker should have been rested against Senegal in the round of 16, protecting the defender from potentially picking up an injury ahead of facing Mbappé.
“He [Walker] is very gifted genetically and his speed is one of his biggest assets,” James Baldwin, head of physiotherapy at Manchester City, said in a recent interview with Therabody.
“To be able to maintain his speed and still be one of the fastest European players at 32 is phenomenal.”
One option for England manager Gareth Southgate would be to deploy five defenders against France, with Walker operating as a right-sided center-back. Otherwise, he could stick with the four-at-the-back formation which worked so effectively in the 3-0 win against Senegal.
Walker, who recovered from a groin injury to earn a starting position at the World Cup, was England’s fastest player against Senegal, recording a top speed of 34.4kph (21.4mph).
He has also gone up against Mbappé before – when Man City defeated PSG in the Champions League semifinals last year.
“I do understand what I need to do and that’s obviously to stop him,” Walker told reporters this week. “It’s probably easier said than done, but I don’t underestimate myself.
“I think he’s one of the best, if not the best in the world at the minute,” Walker added.
Data provider Nielsen has defending champion France as the marginal favorite against England with a 51% chance of winning.
It will be an intriguing encounter at the Al Bayt Stadium, pitting two of the World Cup highest-scoring teams against each other.
Veteran striker Olivier Giroud – taller and stronger in the air than Mbappé – has three goals this campaign having failed to score once when France won the World Cup four years ago. Against Poland, he surpassed Thierry Henry as France’s record goalscorer.
England, meanwhile, has looked irrepressible at times, dismantling Iran, Wales, and Senegal with a series of ruthless attacking performances.
Borussia Dortmund midifielder Jude Bellingham has been the Three Lions’ standout player and looks destined to move to a bigger club in the near future. His perfectly timed run and pass set up Jordan Henderson’s opening goal against Senegal, while his skilful dribble allowed Harry Kane to get the second.
“He’s one of the most gifted players I’ve ever seen,” Phil Foden told ITV about teammate Bellingham. “I don’t see a weakness in his game, I think he’s got everything. I’m sure he’s going to be the best midfielder in the world.”
With some of the best players of the tournament going toe-to-toe, this quarterfinal has all the ingredients of a World Cup classic. For the winner, a semifinal against Morocco or Portugal awaits.
Morocco vs. Portugal – Al Thumama Stadium, 10am ET
England vs. France – Al Bayt Stadium, 2pm ET
How to watch
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC