England’s biggest test since the European Championship final against Italy awaits them this evening in near rivals France.
The Three Lions have overcome every obstacle so far, which most recently came in the form of Senegal. Gareth Southgate’s team showcased their prowess in the game with three fantastic goals that were all brilliantly taken.
With the depth of England’s squad, Southgate has the age old luxury problem of options. Whether it is Marcus Rashford or Jack Grealish off the bench, or Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka, the attacking capabilities the Three Lions possess is remarkable. All players, whether off the bench or starting, have pitched in with goal contributions which is a healthy sign coming into a quarter-final.
And while England and France have heavyweight attackers at the top end of the pitch, the game is going to be won in midfield. Southgate is expected to go with the same team as Senegal, which means a three-man midfield consisting of Declan Rice at the base, with Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson flanking him.
For France, Didier Deschamps likes to position Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot together in a double pivot, with Antoine Griezmann – a star player and World Cup winner for France – as the number 10 behind Olivier Giroud.
On paper, pundits are giving the edge to England’s midfield having too much quality to win the battle. But it is going to come down to space and how hard Griezmann works in the recovery period in reclaiming the ball from the Three Lions.
At times during the Senegal encounter in the Round of 16, England looked flat in midfield, and perhaps nervous. Midfielders were not showing for the ball from the centre halves, which made an out-ball incredibly difficult to navigate and allow England to operate in between the lines.
Against France, they will be punished for sloppiness and a lacklustre start. It was not until the 35th minute mark where the Three Lions started to put a bit of zip onto the ball and fed those that are in front of them.
Les Bleus, who are reigning champions, have huge game experience among the ranks, even if they are missing the likes of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba in the heart of their midfield.
England simply cannot afford to be sloppy in possession or timid in their approach. It might take ten minutes for the players to settle, but if they make the same mistakes they did against the African champions, France will simply punish them.
Bellingham has been one of the best young performers at this World Cup, showcasing his natural talent and all-round midfield capabilities. From getting dirty in the defensive work to marauding runs forward and scoring goals, the Borussia Dortmund man – who is tipped for a sensational £150 million move in the summer – has been a revelation for the Three Lions.
England will have to be on top form throughout the game which might follow the pattern of the other games in going to extra time and penalties. Southgate’s bench is considerably stronger than that of his counterparts’, but he must be astute in making the right decision at the right time.
The Three Lions’ three-man midfield goes up against France’s two for a spot in semi-finals of the World Cup – and the whole word will be watching.