Johnny Phillips: England have got a chance to change their recent World Cup history

Last week, this column leant on history.

England's Kyle Walker
England's Kyle Walker

England have gone out of every World Cup they’ve played in since 1990 to the first world-class team they have faced.

Tonight they have the opportunity to buck the trend.

The comfortable passage through the round of 16 stages has thrown up a heavyweight contest in the form of reigning world champions France.

If preparation is key, then Gareth Southgate’s team have warmed up perfectly.

The win over Senegal came without drama or injury, with the players coasting through the latter stages of the game.

Declan Rice’s absence from training earlier this week was not ideal but this is not an insurmountable problem.

The midfielder has started every game so far and, at the time of writing, there is no indication his absence from training was much more than a precaution.

But if things deteriorate and he is unable to take up a place in the starting XI there is a ready-made replacement in Kalvin Phillips.

Rice is not one of England’s irreplaceable performers.

There are just three who fall into that category – Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Harry Kane.

If Southgate is unable to select any of those, England are a noticeably weaker side.

Much has been made of the need to smother the attacking threat of Kylian Mbappe, another player who missed training this week.

England assistant manager Steve Holland says the France star is among a handful of players in the world who should be put on a pedestal when it comes to looking at the opposition.

“I think there are a handful of players on the planet that you need to consider special attention to,” Holland said. “Messi has been one and probably still is. You’d have to put Mbappe in that kind of category, I would suggest.”

Good, it’s reassuring to know that England are making special plans to cope with this unique talent because he has the capacity to win any game in an instant.

So perhaps a fourth player comes into England’s irreplaceables, for this game at least.

There is no player in the country better equipped to deal with Mbappe than Kyle Walker.

The 32-year-old defender is peerless when it comes to the combination of strength and pace needed to deal with somebody like Mbappe.

Aside from being a talent going forward with the ball, he has this phenomenal fight in him that makes him almost impossible to beat in a one-on-one contest.

I’d back Mbappe against anyone in the world – Walker included – but England’s best chance of negating his threat comes via the Manchester City full-back.

There have been many column inches devoted to the system England should play this evening.

Do they stick with four at the back or switch to a three?

On this occasion, it is less about the system and more about the individual players winning their duels.

Against a team of France’s attacking threats, you can start with whatever system you want but as soon as the ball is in play then everything changes.

Up until this moment, England have had more possession than their opponents in all four games.

France will not let England settle in possession or keep their shape out of it.

England will be pushed around, as they always are against the elite, and it is up to the players to ensure they can live up to the test and maintain as much control as possible.

My preference would be to stick with a four. It has been successful this far, particularly with a defensive-minded midfield ahead, so it seems an unnecessary risk to deviate from that now.

There are two areas of England’s squad which have not been genuinely required so far.

In goal, Jordan Pickford has done everything that has been asked of him, but he has not had to put in a top display just yet.

England have cruised through to this point, apart from the drab draw with USA.

The Everton keeper pulled off an eye-catching save in that match, but against France he will be far busier and needs to show the form of Euro 2020 that won over the doubters.

The second area is the substitutes.

They have not really been needed to this point. At times it has appeared that they have merely been thrown into the action to gild the lily.

They have all done a great job when called upon, with cameos and goals aplenty, but not yet has Southgate needed a game-changer off the bench.

Tonight could be the moment when a substitute makes the difference.

It is all geared up to be a fascinating contest at the Al-Bayt Stadium this evening.

In some respects this tie, and the other three, mark the beginning of the big boys’ contest.

The quarter-finals have a proper look about them.

It has been great to witness some tournament upsets but when it comes to the latter stages we want to see the quality match-ups.

This column is being penned before Friday’s games, and there is certainly a mouth-watering look about the last eight and the possibilities it throws up for the semi-finals and beyond.

Whoever wins it from here will have a tough route to the trophy.

England’s players are not looking that far ahead, but if they can beat France then they will at least put some historical demons to bed.

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