England hope coach Steve Holland’s knowhow can help shackle Mbappé | World Cup 2022


As trepidation grows over the thought of Harry Maguire and John Stones trying to stop Kylian Mbappé when England face France on Saturday night, Gareth Southgate can take comfort from the knowledge his right-hand man dealt with this kind of situation when Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012.

Steve Holland’s experience is a reminder that any player, even the most devastating forward at the World Cup, can be contained if the tactical approach is good enough. Southgate’s assistant was on the backroom staff at Chelsea when they became European champions 10 years ago and he remains proud of how Roberto Di Matteo’s unfancied side stopped a peak Lionel Messi from scoring when they reached the final of the Champions League at the expense of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

“There are a handful of players you need to consider special attention to,” Holland says. “Messi has been one and probably still is. You’d have to put Mbappé in that kind of category. We need to look at trying to avoid leaving ourselves in situations where he is as devastating as we’ve all seen.”

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Holland believes the tie with France is a 50-50 game. He knows the world champions have forwards who can score a goal in the blink of an eye. He will remember, too, that there was an element of luck involved when Chelsea beat Barça given that Messi, who was just as terrifying as Mbappé is now, missed a penalty in the second leg.

England need to strike the right balance. Holland, who has worked for José Mourinho and Antonio Conte at club level, is fascinating on the tactical challenges posed by Mbappé. Do England have to be cautious? Or are they bold enough to try to force him back?

“I remember having a conversation with Mourinho when he was with Real Madrid,” Holland says. “[Dani] Alves would be the right-back for Barcelona and flying forwards in attack. He would play a soldier against him to try to stop him, but then you don’t get any threat from your team from the soldier. You’re just stopping somebody. You’re not actually hurting them. Then he would try to play [Cristiano] Ronaldo one against one because Alves was fantastic going forwards but maybe not quite as good defensively as a consequence.

“There is a plus and a minus to every one. It’s that cat and mouse of: ‘Yes, we have got to try to deal with him, but we also have to try to exploit the weakness that his super-strength delivers.’ Trying to adapt your team to cover for that while still trying to create your own problems is the challenge.

“I would like to think we won’t just be looking to stop a player. We would be looking to try to do everything possible to limit his super-strength while still trying to focus on our own strengths because we have good players; players just as likely to cause France trouble as Mbappé would be to us. We have to find that balance.”

The obvious question, then, is whether England keep faith with their 4-3-3 and back Kyle Walker to stop Mbappé flying down the left. Or is this the moment to switch to a back five, protect Stones and Maguire by moving Walker to right centre-back and start Kieran Trippier at right wing-back?

Chelsea put Barcelona’s Lionel Messi under pressure in the 2012 Champions League semi-final.
Chelsea put Barcelona’s Lionel Messi under pressure in the 2012 Champions League semi-final. Photograph: Andrés Kudacki/AP

“The perception has been that the five is more negative than the four, which I don’t completely agree with,” says Holland, who explains why England used a five against Germany and Italy at Euro 2020. “Germany played 3-4-3 and we felt that if we matched them up we could be superior individually.”

But was it necessary when England met Italy in the final? “You could go either way. They had and still have a similar way of playing where they create five players high in attack. If you’ve got four at the back, you get overloaded at times and that can cause a tactical problem, so that was part of the rationale in that game.

“We have a group 18 months further on than the Euros. One or two of our younger forwards, there has definitely been an evolution. To win tournaments you need to be the best team in both penalty areas.”

Holland thinks about England’s win over Iran in their opening game in Qatar. “Six goals is a good start but two goals a game against is not going to win us the World Cup. We’ve now had three clean sheets, which is clear progress.

“We have goals from different players. We have three, four, five attacking players where there is very little between them. There isn’t a right or wrong team. It’s not just a case of a back three or a back four, it’s trying to utilise what we’ve got to give ourselves the best chance of scoring as many goals as possible and conceding as few.”

Inevitably, the conversation turns to Jude Bellingham, England’s sensational 19-year-old midfielder. “He’s unique,” Holland says. “We’ve talked about Messi and those special techniques. What makes the top, top ones is the mentality, the ambition every day to push and be competitive. There were a few at Chelsea I felt were always there in training.”

Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry come to mind. “There were others,” Holland says. “Players that weren’t super-gifted physically or super-gifted technically, but the mental aspect of it took them to a different level of performance. Jude has those mental attributes. There has been an evolution physically in the last 12 months. It has taken him to another level.”

Holland considers Bellingham’s experience at Borussia Dortmund. “The Bundesliga is a good league to develop in. It’s probably not quite as challenging every week as the Premier League. He gets a fair share of games where he is comfortable and enjoying playing on the ball and not always on the limit, which for a young player is a good way to develop. His impact in this tournament, for a player of his age, is already hugely unusual.

“I’m always balanced, as Gareth is, with the amount of praise because we have seen so many where so much goes wrong because they believe in their publicity. I don’t think that will happen with Jude.”

Holland is happy Bellingham is adding goals to his game. It is something for France to think about as England put the finishing touches to their plan. “There’s only three things that you can do in football,” Holland says. “Stop goals, make goals, score goals. That’s how you contribute.”



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