A DECADE ago, Steve Holland was hatching a masterplan to snuff out the threat of Lionel Messi in a Champions League semi-final and it worked a treat.
Ten years on, Gareth Southgate’s trusted No 2 is working out a scheme to combat Kylian Mbappe in Saturday night’s World Cup quarter-final.
But England are the tournament’s top scorers with 12 goals – level with Portugal after their 6-1 mauling of Switzerland – and arguably, the best team in Qatar so far.
So, while former Chelsea No 2 Holland admits he and Southgate will change tactics specifically to counter Mbappe’s pace, skill and finishing ability, he insists England cannot retreat into their shells.
The Mbappe conundrum reminds Holland of that 2012 semi-final when Messi failed to score over two legs and the Blues progressed courtesy of a 1-0 home win and a 2-2 draw in the Nou Camp, when John Terry was sent off and the great Argentinian missed a penalty.
Holland said: “In 2012, with the Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Chelsea, there are a handful of players on the planet that you need to consider special attention to.
“Messi has been one and probably still is. You’d have to put Mbappe in that category.
“We do need to look at trying to avoid leaving ourselves in situations where he is as devastating, as we’ve all seen.
“I remember a conversation with Jose Mourinho about it when he was with Real Madrid, they were playing Barcelona and had Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Dani Alves would be the right-back for Barcelona and flying forward in attack, Jose 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 as you’re just stopping somebody, not actually hurting them.
“Then he would try to play Ronaldo against him, one against one, because Alves was fantastic going forwards but maybe not as good defensively.”
Chelsea had Ashley Cole, one of the best left-backs in the world, directly up against Messi on those nights in 2012.
But it was Brazilian midfielder Ramires who shut down the space in front of Cole to deny Messi the room to drift in field as Alves strode forward from right-back.
Chelsea played a midfield five that night and needed brilliant communication to stop any spaces between them that Messi would drift into.
Holland added: “It’s that cat and mouse of ‘yes, we have still got to try to deal with him’ but we also have to try to exploit weaknesses.
“I’d like to think we won’t just be looking to stop a player but would be looking to do everything possible to limit his super strength whilst still trying to focus on our strengths.
“Because we have good players, as likely to cause France trouble as Mbappe would to us.”
THE CHELSEA WAY
Holland was working under Roberto Di Matteo back in 2012 and also assisted Andre Villas-Boas, Rafa Benitez, Mourinho, Guus Hiddink and Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge.
His wealth of experience makes him a perfect sounding board for Southgate — with whom he has worked since 2013, initially with England’s Under-21s.
While Holland is happy to discuss the options, he will not reveal England’s anti-Mbappe plan.
With the Paris Saint-Germain superstar wreaking havoc down the left, it might seem obvious for Southgate and Holland to switch to a back five — with the pacey Kyle Walker on the right of the central three and Kieran Trippier at right wing-back.
But there is a feeling England have become emboldened enough about their own strengths to stick with a back four, with Walker continuing at right-back and Jordan Henderson having added defensive responsibilities.
That has much to do with the emergence of Jude Bellingham and the belief that England have their midfield balance right with the Borussia Dortmund teenager in front of Henderson and Declan Rice.
Henderson’s experience and ability to read the game will be key in getting numbers around Mbappe and stop him being isolated against Walker as often as possible.
BELL TOLLS FOR FRANCE
On 19-year-old Bellingham, Holland said: “He’s unique. When you’re categorising really top players there are physical attributes, technical attributes and we’ve talked about Messi and those techniques that make you special.
“My experience is that what makes the top, top ones is the mentality . . . the self-belief, confidence, drive and ambition to push every day.
“There were a few at Chelsea I felt were always there every time in training — Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, John Terry — players that weren’t super-gifted physically or technically but the mental aspect took them to a different level.
“Jude has those mental attributes and there has been an evolution physically in the last 12 months.
“His impact in this tournament, for a player of 19, is already hugely unusual.
“I’m always balanced, as Gareth is, with the amount of praise you give because we’ve seen so many where so much goes wrong because they believe in their publicity.
“I don’t think that will happen with Jude. His potential is through the roof.
“Provided he keeps working, he has an incredible career at the absolute highest level.
“There’s only three things you can do in football. Stop goals, make goals, score goals. Jude can do all of those things.
“Recently, he’s begun to score, which makes the biggest players big-matchwinning ability.”
SOUTH OF HEAVEN
Holland is adamant he is not ‘the bad cop’ to Southgate’s good cop, although some England players might disagree, but he is an outstanding tactician.
So what about the perception of over-caution under Southgate?
Especially if England switch to a back five, as they did against Germany and Italy at last year’s Euros.
Holland said: “The perception has been that the five is more negative than the four, which I don’t completely agree with.
“Against Germany at the Euros, they played 3-4-3 and we felt if we matched them individually all over the pitch that we could be superior — so it was a good way to win.
“The final against Italy, we had a choice. They had a way of playing where they get five players high in attack. If you’ve got four at the back, you get overloaded and that can cause a tactical problem.
“But no two tournaments are the same. We have a group that are 18 months further from the Euros — and one or two of our younger forwards have definitely evolved.”