England generally lose to big teams at major tournaments but this time, breaking the pattern of recent decades, they didn’t deserve to.
“Tonight is probably the best we’ve played against a major nation in the period I’ve been in charge [since 2016]. But we’ve fallen short,” said England’s manager Gareth Southgate, after a 2-1 defeat to France in the last of the 2022 World Cup quarter-finals.
They were the better team on the night, repeatedly breaking through the left side of the French defence. They had eight attempts on target, four of them from Harry Kane, against a very respectable five for France. The world champions triumphed because Kane, England’s chief attacking threat, missed his second penalty of the match against Hugo Lloris — his longtime Tottenham Hotspur teammate and the goalkeeper who knows him best.
By such threads hang years of work in international football. This was the first time since 2006 that England had a realistic shot at winning a World Cup. This generation of players might not get as good a chance again.
Billed beforehand as an epic encounter, it actually turned out that way. In the Al Bayt Stadium in the desert outside Doha, England and France produced probably the match of the tournament — a rapid, open game that felt like a top-level Champions League encounter. The game had the setting it deserved. The organisers announced a full house with 68,895 spectators, and unusually for this World Cup, every seat did look taken.
It’s impossible to neutralise French forward Kylian Mbappé, but England handled him intelligently. Rather than asking Kyle Walker to stay toe to toe with him, they cut off French supply lines to the Parisian and defended near the halfway line, not allowing him the regular access to the penalty area he received from France’s previous opponents.
Given each side’s scoring efficiency, any loss of possession carried risk. The move for France’s opening goal started with Dayot Upamecano dispossessing Bukayo Saka up front — fouling him, Saka thought. Upamecano reached Mbappé on the left, and England players stood off him anxiously. Mbappé is granted more space than mere mortals, because defenders fear that if they get too close, his pace will leave them standing. He carried the ball into the centre, then passed to Ousmane Dembélé on the right. The winger found Antoine Griezmann, who laid off to Aurélien Tchouaméni, who on 17 minutes fired from outside the penalty area into Jordan Pickford’s far-right corner.
What a few months it has been for 22-year-old Tchouaméni, who has become an unquestioned starter for both Real Madrid and France just this season. He got into France’s team only because of injuries to stalwarts Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté. In Qatar he has anchored midfield alone, allowing France the luxury of Griezmann in attacking midfield plus three forwards.
England roared back, with Harry Kane as both creator and marksman. He had the beating of Upamecano, a late entry into France’s team after their plague of injuries, and a more physical centre-back than is advisable in the age of video-assisted refereeing. Saka also found space against France’s left-back Theo Hernandez, who prefers attacking. A riveting contest developed between Kane and Lloris. First Kane tested the keeper from close range, then a VAR check denied Kane a plausible shout for a penalty after Upamecano hooked his leg. Next a Kane long-range forced a flying stop from Lloris, almost as if the two were doing morning shooting practice at Spurs’ training ground in Enfield, North London.
In the second half England were superior. Dribbles from the wingers Saka and Phil Foden stretched the French defence wide. Soon after halftime, Lloris tipped a screamer from Jude Bellingham over the bar.
England’s equaliser, after 54 minutes, was deserved. Saka dribbled in from the right again, and Tchouaméni felled him in the box.
Kane and Lloris faced each other over a penalty, as they must have countless times before in Enfield when it didn’t matter. Kane, unfazed, hit an unstoppable shot high to the right, while Lloris dived left. At just 29, Kane had equalled Wayne Rooney as England’s record scorer with 53 goals.
England continued to pepper Lloris’s goal, a header from Harry Maguire brushing the post. But a team with Mbappé, Griezmann and Olivier Giroud needs few opportunities to score. Pickford saved well from a Giroud volley. England defended the ensuing corner but then Griezmann crossed from the left and Giroud smashed home a header — equalling Kane with 53 international goals. Assists are an undeservedly lower-profile stat, but it was Griezmann’s second of the match and his record 28th for France.
England had just 12 minutes to equalise, and the perfect opportunity arrived when Hernandez barged Mason Mount from behind in the penalty area. It was the most demanding of assignments for Kane — his second spot-kick of the half against a longtime colleague, to keep England in the World Cup — and he failed it. His blast over the bar drew a laugh from Mbappé.
In the last seconds, Marcus Rashford fired a free-kick inches over. Then England’s players slumped on the field, as their manager walked around dispensing hugs.
They should be proud. England didn’t exit here with backs-to-the-wall defending devoid of coherent passing, as in the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia and last year’s final of Euro 2020 against Italy. This time, said Southgate, “we have done such a good job that there are fewer regrets.” They played Southgatean football to the end, building precisely from defence. Now they must target the European Championship in 18 months. They will approach it as second favourites behind only France.
France meet Morocco in Wednesday’s semi-final as favourites to lift their second straight World Cup. It is a remarkable achievement after injury deprived them of three world champions from 2018 plus the man crowned world’s best player, Karim Benzema. They still started here with five world champions. But as this tournament is reminding us, in knockout football quality doesn’t guarantee victory.