Stop Kylian Mbappe, and you stop France – that’s the only reason I fear them.
The good news for England is that Kyle Walker is definitely quick enough to take on Mbappe – he’s probably the only defender on the planet who would be happy to take him on in a one-on-one race.
But this battle won’t just be about raw pace. Mbappe’s intelligence makes Walker’s job on Saturday much more difficult than that.
To get through this, Walker will need help, so the team’s approach and the focus of the players around him will also be crucial.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch, and England’s success or failure could come down to the finest margins – Mbappe knows a small amount of time is all it takes, and he’ll be out.
Focus and anticipation are both crucial
Many defenders could keep Mbappe silent for around an hour, but only the best can do it for more than 90 minutes.
It’s not just about keeping your focus the whole game when you’re up against a player like him; it’s all about anticipation and making sure everything else is perfect too.
If Mbappe decides to attack you and you take the wrong decision by half a centimeter or half a second – or even just face him from the wrong angle – then forget it, because he’s gone.
I’m sure Poland’s Matty Cash could tell you all about how it feels, having lost to France in the last 16 and Mbappe scoring two fantastic late goals.
There were two chances Mbappe created in the first half where he went to Cash on the outside, and the Aston Villa right-back could have done better – his angle of approach was slightly off and, s he had settled that, he probably stops the cross.
Even so, for most of the game, Cash did well. He was probably thinking ‘I’m doing a decent job against him here’.
With a player like this, however, that can change in an instant. You can defend well, but the game is taken away from you with a moment of brilliance, as Cash found out the hard way.
The moment you give Mbappe time it’s a problem
Walker and Mbappe will have their own personal battle, but other England players will also do their part.
I would start the same team that played against Senegal and I think Gareth Southgate will choose Jordan Henderson again in midfield for two reasons.
Henderson is what I would call a player led by responsibility because if he can press down a bit he frees up Jude Bellingham and frees him up to be more dynamic going forward.
On top of that, he can protect and double up with Walker on the right flank like he does for Liverpool with Trent Alexander-Arnold, which is going to be so important here.
I remember playing for Manchester United against AC Milan at the San Siro in the Champions League in 2005, when we had Cristiano Ronaldo absolutely on fire for us.
Ronaldo was against Cafu on the left but Gennaro Gattuso came out and came towards him like a caged animal with so much energy and aggression every time he received the ball, helping his full-back.
I see Henderson doing the exact same thing because as soon as you give Mbappe time he is a problem.
So we need someone to get close to him and rock him, so he can’t lift his head and get ready to leave.
That’s the only criticism I would probably have for Cash and Poland overall – I haven’t seen any of their players get right next to him and try to throw him off balance or leave their elbows in his Adam’s apple, that sort of thing.
You also need to make it a physical battle, within reason of course, to make sure he doesn’t think he’ll just get a free run.
Because believe me, everyone will. If, for example, Argentina plays against someone like Mbappe, he comes off the pitch with cuts and bruises. We can’t be too nice and let him play.
“Go challenge and don’t look back – I’ll be there”
I played fast, smart players like Thierry Henry, Michael Owen, Nicolas Anelka all the time in the Premier League, and Adriano and Samuel Eto’o in the Champions League too.
There were other players from all over the world that I would play against and I was like “wow, they are crazy”, but I was never scared, I just knew I had to be ready.
When playing for Manchester United, if there was someone in Gary Neville’s team, I used to say ‘don’t let them play you’. I was telling him to come in and challenge them when they got the ball and not let them turn around and come at us – so they play the ball upside down, basically.
I would tell him to do that every time even if it was a bit foreign and he would step out of position to get closer to the attacker because if something came overhead and they moved away from him, I’ll be there.
I was the centre-back and if I wasn’t there it’s my responsibility, so I’d say ‘don’t look back when you leave – I’ll cover you’.
Walker and John Stones might do things differently, but those are the kinds of conversations the four England defenders will have had all week. They will all have to adopt their game, and their positions, to deal with the threat of Mbappe.
As I said at the start, Mbappe is not only fast, he is also smart. His response to all of this is also what I’m looking forward to.
We know what a fantastic player he is, but if England come up with a plan to lock him down, I want to see how they come up with a solution.
Is he moving away from Walker, to another part of the field? Will he sense weakness elsewhere and be allowed to roam?
He could also change the way he plays. Against Poland he just wanted the ball to touch all the time, but he could easily decide to run behind our defense instead.
And if he gets past Walker and reaches both of our centre-halves, it’s all over – it’s going to be a long night for England if this continues, but even once could be enough.
Why it’s vital that Walker has minutes in the bank
None of this will faze Walker, who is not only one of the fastest players in the Premier League, he is also one of the most experienced.
He’s faced Mbappe four times already, including on huge occasions like the 2020-21 Champions League semi-finals, and at 32 he’s been there, seen it and done it against all the best strikers in the world many times before.
The only thing Walker might be concerned about this time is his fitness after his groin injury, which is why it’s vital he plays the full game against Senegal in the last 16.
Some people were saying he shouldn’t have been risky because he’s so vital against Mbappe, but you have to look at him from the player’s perspective.
Walker was out for two months before playing an hour against Wales in our last group game, so had he rested he would have faced perhaps the best player in the world – who is also in amazing shape by the way. – with only those 60 minutes in the bank.
I’m sorry, but if that’s the case, you don’t come into the game feeling confident.
When I was playing, I always needed minutes to get into a big game. I didn’t want questions in my head when I got to 75 minutes about whether my body would get tired and shut down.
I wanted to know that I could get to this point and get out of it, because this could be the spell where we are under the hammer. If the lactic acid kicks in and you’re struggling physically, this might be the moment you make a small mistake that costs your team the game.
Walker is crossing that territory now because he’s played a full game.
Facing Mbappe is a different proposition to playing against Senegal, of course, but he has those minutes now, and it’s such an important part – he’ll be ready, I’m sure.
Rio Ferdinand was talking to Chris Bevan in Doha, Qatar.