World Cup: Similarities course through latest instalment of Le Crunch
Kane and Mbappe will go head to head in Saturday's quarter final (Getty)

One could argue that when England and France face off in the World Cup quarter-final at Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday it will be a meeting of the two best tournament teams of recent years. England have won six knockout games in the past three major tournaments since Gareth Southgate took charge. Under Didier Deschamps, France have won nine in five major tournaments.

What’s more, England haven’t lost a major knockout match in 90 minutes since 2016 while France haven’t lost one in 90 minutes since 2014. And although not always immediately apparent, other similarities course through this latest instalment of Le Crunch.

For one, they are both coached by a former player whose conservative instincts haven’t always made him popular, but who has shown a knack for navigating the knife-edge contours of tournament football by building a solid defensive base and allowing a group of gifted attacking players to express themselves.

Also, like England, France’s form leading into this World Cup was somewhat indifferent: they won only one of their six Nations League games this year, losing once to Croatia and twice against Denmark. But, similarly to Southgate’s team, they seem to have rediscovered a dangerous and efficient version of themselves just in time.

Clearly one clear difference is that France enter Saturday’s match as current world champions, England do not. On the whole, Deschamps’ squad are broadly at the same level as in 2018. Hugo Lloris is no longer the same world-class shot-stopper; Raphael Varane and Dayot Upamecano have played just three international games together in central defensive; and N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, who were instrumental in Russia, are absent.

Mbappe and Giroud have formed a devastating partnership (Getty)

But then again, Kylian Mbappe has improved from the already high level he set in 2018. He is currently playing at best-in-the-world levels. France’s attack was already formidable as they put four past Argentina and the same number against Croatia four years ago. Now, they may well be even more dangerous.

Perhaps the biggest evolution is the flourishing partnership between Mbappe and Olivier Giroud. The pair are known to play pool off the pitch and they have become a devastating duo on it. Their ability to play off each other’s strength to manipulate space and force defenders into impossible dilemmas has led to France scoring nine in four games, of which Mbappe has struck five.

Circumstance has brought best out of France

The funny thing about this France team is that they’ve almost been forced by circumstance into a more adventurous approach, against Deschamps’ intuitions. The manager may well like to at least have the option to revert to the asymmetric 4-2-3-1 system of 2018 but doesn’t have the ingredients to deviate too much.

Lucas Hernandez’s injury, which forced him off against Australia in the opening group game, has forced Deschamps to play his brother Theo, a much more attacking left back who links well with Mbappe but is not as defensively solid. That could be an area England attempt to exploit with Bukayo Saka’s pace and directness down the right.

France, like England, appear to have committed to a front-foot approach given the balance of their squad and where the quality lies within it. Both managers are somewhat going against their inner-pragmatic beliefs by going toe-to-toe with opponents, but are reaping rewards.

France’s more attacking approach has been effective largely because their midfield trio have performed so well. There was no guarantee that it would work: Aurelien Tchouameni, Adrien Rabiot and Antoine Griezmann had only started two internationals together before the tournament, and the latter two had not been in sparkling club form. But they have dovetailed beautifully.

The use of a strong midfield to thrust an attack is something England displayed to aplomb in the round of 16 win over Senegal. On Saturday, the midfield will be a key battle ground even if the emphasis in the build-up has been on Mbappe and Kyle Walker.

France are unbeaten in knockout games within 90 minutes since 2014 (Getty)

It is only to be expected that focus falls on Mbappe as there are some who believe France are over-reliant on the forward for his goals. France have only had three scorers in this tournament, compared with England’s eight. Possibly that hints at Southgate’s team being much more efficient.

England may also have better options on the bench. An unfortunate spate of injuries (Kante, Pogba, Hernandez, Karim Benzema, Presnel Kimpembe, Christopher Nkunku) has left France light on depth.

Instead, Deschamps has been left with Kingsley Coman, Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani as his attacking game-changers. Southgate may justifiably feel he has the better cards up his sleeve: Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount and James Maddison.

As France have progressed through the tournament Deschamps has been keen to highlight the camaraderie around the French camp. There were rumours of ructions after their exit from last summer’s European Championship, but there has been little sign of disharmony in Qatar and they look like a tight group. That is certainly one quality Southgate will recognise within his own squad.

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