Gareth Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland admits that the plan to stop Kylian Mbappe on Saturday could be Messi. Well, Messi 2.0, to be more precise, as he plans to dust down a decade-old dossier drawn up in his Chelsea days.
With Roberto di Matteo taking over from Felipo Scolari in mid-season, Barcelona were strong favourites to beat Chelsea in the two-legged 2012 Champions League semi-final. Lionel Messi had already scored 14 goals in the competition that season and 63 in all competitions and most pundits expected the Argentina maestro to beat the Premier League side all on his own.
However, with a narrow 1-0 win under their belts from Stamford Bridge, Chelsea held on for a memorable 2-2 in the Nou Camp despite having skipper John Terry sent off earlier in the game. By the same token, Mbappe arrives at the Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday with five goals putting him clear at the top of the Golden Boot table and playing the sort of football that many say is unstoppable.
“I think there are a handful of players on the planet that you need to consider special attention to,” Holland says. “Messi has been one and probably still is. You’d have to put Mbappe in that kind of category I would suggest.
“We do need to look at trying to avoid leaving ourselves in situations where he is as devastating as we’ve all seen.” Just to be on the safe side, as well as Messi, Holland has thrown a lesson learned thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo into the mix as well.
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“I remember having a conversation with Jose Mourinho about it a long time ago when he was with Real Madrid,” Holland recalled. “Dani Alves would be the right back for Barcelona and flying forwards in attack against them.
“Jose’s first thought would be to play a ‘soldier’ against him. But then you don’t get any threat yourself from the ‘soldier’. You’re just stopping somebody, you’re not actually hurting them. Then he would try to play Ronaldo against him, directly, one against one, because Alves was fantastic going forwards but maybe not quite as good defensively as a consequence.”
The theory seems to be that for all that Mbappe is dangerous going forward, is he perhaps leaving a gap in behind that could be exploited by one of England’s rapidly-developing world stars. “There is always a plus and a minus to every battle,” Holland said. “It’s that cat-and-mouse of, ‘Yes, we have still got to try to deal with him’ but ‘We also have to try to exploit the weakness that his super strength delivers’.
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“You need to try to adapt your team to cover for that, whilst still trying to create your own problems. That is the challenge. I would like to think we won’t just be looking to stop one player, because we have good players.
“Players just as likely to cause France trouble as Mbappe would be to us. We have to find that balance.” Crucially, the improved defensive qualities of England’s midfielders and attacking players means Southgate is likely to stick with a flat back four.
“We have a group now that are 18 months further on than the Euros. One or two of our younger forwards, there has definitely been an evolution so more consistent, more productivity at this level. The challenge before every game we play now is to look at what we have, the tools we have in the bag.
“Then we look at the problems the opponent is going to cause us, their weaknesses and try to come up with something that gives us the best chance of winning the game.”