Exclusive: Petit Questions Walker’s Fitness for Mbappé Duel

Former Arsenal, Chelsea and France midfielder Emmanuel Petit spoke exclusively with Compare.bet this week ahead of the big quarter-final clash between England and France. Petit questioned Kyle Walker’s fitness as the England right-back prepares to face Kylian Mbappé. He also praised Jude Bellingham’s performances and identified a transfer window target for Arteta to fill the void left by the injury to Gabriel Jesus. 

DB: What are your predictions for the England v France game?

EP: This game is so hard to predict. In my mind, I think there are so many qualities, collectively and individually, for both teams. So I would bet on a draw. I don’t think it’s going to be an open game. Each team knows the other’s qualities, I think they both respect each other. I think there’s a bit of fear on both sides. They have so many similarities. The attacks are strong, the midfields are strong. England looks better than us [France] in defence. Altogether, it’s very hard to predict who’s going to win. I have no idea, to be honest with you. There are so many keys to this game, you can’t only focus on Kylian Mbappe. Mbappe will need his teammates as well.
On the radio, in the newspapers, and on TV, so many people are saying this is the worst team to play against, that they would rather play against Portugal, Brazil or Argentina than England. Maybe they’re right. It’ll be a close game.

DB: We’ve seen a few of these knockout games finish as a draw and go to penalties. Do you feel confident against England if it does go to penalties?

EP: Historically, we’ve taken advantage when it goes to penalties. We did it in 1998. Every time recently, we’ve taken advantage of it, but it’s a lottery. We saw that yesterday with Spain. You can train for 10 years, practising penalties every day, but all of a sudden the penalty kick comes and you’ve missed it – the environment changes, and the pressure has changed. It seems easy to do, but it’s very difficult, mentally.

DB: England are the highest-scoring team in the tournament so far, do you think their attack can cause France problems?

EP: Yeah, they’re scoring a lot of goals, but more importantly, they’re not conceding goals. It’s very hard to score against them, or even create chances against them. My experience in the World Cup is that most winners don’t win because of the goals they scored, it’s because of the goals they don’t concede. England are very efficient in both penalty areas and that’s on top of all the other qualities they have. It’s something that France must be aware of.

DB: There’s a lot of talk about Kyle Walker being the ideal right-back to defend Mbappe because of his pace. Do you think he’ll be able to contain Mbappe?

EP: This is one of the keys in the game. It’ll be very important. We all know Kylian Mbappe is a deadly weapon, he can damage any defence in the world. He can score at any time, he can make a difference by himself when he wants to. The speed of Kyle Walker is very important, of course, but is he 100% fit? When you play against Kylian Mbappe, you have to be 100% fit in your mind and in your body, is he? I’m not sure. For me, this is key, because tactically, it could change everything in the game. If you can keep Mbappe far from the goal, it’ll be more difficult for him to score goals but if the English defence drops a bit more, the balance of their team will be effected. So if Kyle Walker isn’t 100% fit, a central defender or central midfielder will have to help him and the balance won’t be good. Kyle Walker will need to go the full 90 minutes because Kylian Mbappe sprints until the very end. Even after two hours, he will challenge you until the end. I hope for England that Kyle Walker is 100% fit, because if he’s not that will be a big problem for them.

DB: England’s midfield three of Bellingham, Rice and Henderson has impressed in the last two games. Do you think this midfield can match up well with France?

EP: For me, this is the most important key to the game. All the attackers are important of course, but you win games in midfield. Kane and Mbappe need good midfielders behind them to provide them service, make transitions and get the balance of the team. Both teams play with three, so it will be a physical battle. The midfield that can get the ball at their feet most and set the rhythm of the game and conduct the game technically will gain a big advantage.

DB: It seems Antoine Griezmann has enjoyed a revival after some lost years at Barcelona, now featuring in a midfield role and providing great link-up play. Do you think it’ll be tough for England’s midfield to contain him?

EP: Of course it will be tough, he loves to run, we can see that. We can see that he’s been managed by Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, he likes to run so much, he likes to defend, he likes to tackle and win the ball back. He likes to make his teammates happy on the pitch, I think he loves providing assists more than scoring goals. That shows his personality on the pitch and this new role fits him perfectly. Behind the attack, he does a great job. Not only does he do a great job recovering the ball, but when he gets the ball he plays very simply and quickly. Before he receives the ball, he sees what he has to do in one touch. That breaks lines in the midfield, he goes into transition with Mbappe. They [Mbappe and Griezmann] have played together for the last four years and they know each other very well now. He said three days ago, ‘now I understand what they want on the pitch’. He understands their movements, whether they want the ball at their feet or into space. He knows how to link with Giroud, Mbappe and even Dembele. He’s doing a great job and will be very important on Saturday with his ball retention and how he can conduct the game for France. He shows character and experience on the pitch and I’m a big fan of Griezmann. Much like Giroud, he’s recovered after some criticism in recent years.

Don’t forget, we’ve lost Paul Pogba and N’golo Kante and we were all questioning – who’s going to play in midfield? Adrien Rabiot was under pressure as well, he said that he knows people criticise him since he left France for Turin, but he’s ready to take responsibility, and he’s done it. Tchouameni as well has played a holding role and has been very important in protecting the defence and providing a physical presence. Again, the midfield battle will be key.

DB: Olivier Giroud overtook Thierry Henry’s goalscoring record. He’s enjoying success even in what I’d guess are the latter stages of his career now – how do you think he’s done since leaving Arsenal?

EP: I know that everyone is focused on Kylian Mbappe and Foden and Bellingham, and they may be right to. I love those guys, but I love Giroud too! It’s a typical example of someone who isn’t a ‘star’ in this system. He never talks, he’s never headline news, and he’s always criticised, even when he scores. I remember seeing former players speak about him in England and I was so shocked by the words they used, no respect at all. Giroud is the perfect example of what a squad player has to be on and off the pitch. He said something nice the other day in a press conference, admitting that people don’t like the way he plays but that nothing was given to him. He arrived late onto the scene, earning his first cap at 25. And still, he’s one of the most important players in the national team! Even when you put him on the bench, he shows resilience all the time. I see what happens at Arsenal, at Chelsea and at Milan. He’s a warrior. He has so much confidence in himself and does everything he needs to do on the pitch to convince people that he deserves his place here at the World Cup. He wasn’t in Didier Deschamps’s plans before Benzema got injured. They showed him the door for no reason! I’m so happy for him. I’d like to say thank you Mr. Giroud, for reminding me what a squad player should be – a hard worker, humble. There’s no anger, no revenge. He shows so much serenity. People have been mentioning the Thierry Henry goalscoring record for so long, now he’s done it, he has nothing left to prove.

People just don’t want to change their opinion, even if the facts are on the table. Just judge him on his performances.

DB: What is England’s biggest weakness that France should look to attack?

EP: The only weakness I see in the England team is that they never win anything. I remember the generation of Lampard, Gerrard, and Scholes. Back in the day, they looked strong, but they never won anything. I think it’s time for this group to make a point. This French team already has won a World Cup and know they can win, but this isn’t the case with England. Sooner or later this generation of England players will win a tournament, whether it’s this World Cup I don’t know. But for sure, the main difference is England is better than France in defence because of all of France’s injuries. If they can convince themselves they are able to win, they will cause problems for France.

DB: What’s stopping England from getting over the line? The tactics? The mentality?

EP: Every detail matters in this game. It will be a close game and so many players on each team can make a difference. Set pieces will be important especially, as this is an area of weakness for France and there are players in the England team that can exploit it.

DB: Bukayo Saka has three goals in three matches at the World Cup. England have a lot of talent out wide, including Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish. Do you think Saka should start against France?

EP: Both Saka and Rashford are having very good World Cups. I don’t know what’s going through Southgate’s mind because there are so many options in attack for England. I would play players with high speed on the wings if I were Southgate as France have struggled against that all tournament. Our wing backs are not proper wing backs and Koundé already has a yellow card on the right. England should be looking to create 1v1s against France’s defence.

DB: There’s mixed opinion on Southgate in this country, what do you think of him and how he sets this team up?

EP: I think he’s doing really well. A lot of the troubles with England was with the midfield, but he seems to have fixed that now. Bellingham is a star who attracts others to him and he is so mature for his age. Every player wants to play with him. You cannot ask for more from Southgate, a World Cup semi-final, then a Euros final and now a quarter-final. This is so impressive. I used to question his tactics, but now I know exactly what Southgate is doing when I watch England. He has a clear idea of what he wants to do and that reflects on the players. They all know what to do with the ball and without the ball.

DB: The likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Man Utd and Man City at some point have all been linked to Bellingham. Do you think Arsenal could join the race?

EP: I would love for Bellingham to play at Arsenal. I am a huge fan of his. But i think it would be very hard as so many clubs are trying to get him. I think about Liverpool for example, they need him more than anyone else. Some of their midfielders are getting a bit old and they are getting injuries. To be honest, If I were him I would wait until at least the end of the season, finish the year with Dortmund and then decide after that.

DB: Saliba made a cameo against Tunisia. He admitted it wasn’t a great performance and said there’s more pressure playing for France than Arsenal. What did you think of his brief performance?

EP: Saliba didn’t have a great game against Tunisia, but all of the players didn’t play well. He was honest and frank, but this game had no consequences, and it just highlighted the lack of balance in the squad. Sometimes you need to be able to count on players on the bench, and after the game against Tunisia, it proved to all of us that France doesn’t have players to come in if there is a few injuries.

DB: Arsenal may have to restart their Premier League campaign without Gabriel Jesus. What kind of impact do you think his absence will have on this title race?

EP: It’s devastating news for him and for Arsenal. He was playing so well, and having a great season. He was clearly really enjoying his game and it’s such a shame. The transfer market is coming soon, and we all know that they need another attacking option. Some reports were saying he would be out 2-3 weeks and now it may be 2-3 months. We don’t know how long it will be, and first we need to find out how long it will be before Arsenal look into who they buy.

DB: The World Cup always seems to give the big clubs a bunch of new transfer targets. Is there anyone you think should be on Arsenal’s radar after this tournament?

EP: There have been some revelations in this World Cup, some of them are very young. Kudus, he’s very powerful. He’s got so many qualities, and a killer instinct as well in front of goal. He’s made great progress the last two years, but it wasn’t easy for him because a lot of the time he was on the bench. But Kudus, he has impressed me a lot with Ajax this season, he can play different positions as well. He could be a bargain for Arsenal. It would be great if Arteta could add him to the team. But there’s also another, I’ve been keeping an eye on him, he’s very new, he’s very young, only 18 years old, is Youssoufa Moukoko from Germany. He was part of the German team in the World Cup, I think he only played a couple of minutes, he’s only 18 and has shown great maturity with his club at Dortmund. He’s already got six goals and six assists so far, he’s fast, he’s quick, and he’s aggressive. I know that Arteta wants young players, Balogun could be an option, but to be honest, I’d prefer Balogun to stay in France. Arteta did the same with Saliba, he was not convinced with his maturity, his confidence, his qualities, they sent him on loan and look what happened with his spell on loan at Marseille. He came back to Arsenal and he’s a different player. Balogun is having a great season so far with Rennes in France, he’s scored eight goals in 15 games. New country, new teammate, new language, new football, it’s not the same football in Ligue 1 as in the Premier League and so far he’s done a great job. But I think he should stay in Rennes and keep developing himself just like Saliba did. So if I’m Arteta, I’m not going to recall Balogun. Instead, I’d spend money on a big young prospect, Kudus is one of them, but Moukoko could be an option as well.

DB: That leaves Eddie Nketiah as Arteta’s only option. Are you confident he can step up and fill Jesus’ boots?

EP: He did, a couple of times last season. I think it’s exactly what he needs. Did he take the right decision signing a new contract and staying at Arsenal, knowing it would be difficult for him to play regular first-team football? He’s young, he’s still learning, he wants to stay at Arsenal, he will have time to play because Arsenal are short of options on the bench. Arteta would have no choice but to rest Jesus or other players up front. So he will get time to shine, and this is a really good opportunity for him. Is he doing to play every single game, for sure no. For me, he doesn’t have the power to do so. But he can improve step by step, it’s the perfect opportunity for him as Arteta will ask him to take responsibility on the pitch. I’m sure he will do so, but Arsenal cannot rely on only Nketiah to finish the last six months of the season. It depends on how long Jesus is out for, both are related.

DB: Back in February, Arteta spoke about Emile Smith Rowe’s versatility, saying:

‘He can play as a left winger, he can play as a left attacking midfielder, right attacking midfielder and he can play as a nine — very, very well I think.’

Do you think he has the skill set to help fill that role, maybe even as a false nine?

EP: I disagree with that. I know Smith-Rowe is a very good player, he’s had so many injuries in the last couple of months. He’s got quality, I love the guy and mentally, he’s humble. He can play different positions, but I think sometimes Spanish managers should think about the best player’s position on the pitch as well and to be honest with you, Smith-Rowe is not a striker, he’s a midfielder. He can play on the wings, but not upfront. Please don’t tell me we’re going to play without a proper number nine, we’re not playing with the national team in Spain or City. We’ve Guardiola go back and play now with a regular number nine, he changed from his older City days. You can do that for a couple of games if you have injuries or suspensions, but don’t tell me that Smith-Rowe can play upfront, it’s not an option for me.

DB: We saw Japan record impressive victories over Spain and Germany but lose on penalties to Croatia. Arsenal’s Tomiyasu spoke about how disappointed he was in his own performance, saying he needs a break from football and doesn’t know when he’ll return. Do you think he’s being a little too hard on himself?

EP: Of course he’s too harsh on himself, he’s too emotional. For me it’s normal, it’s a big desolation when you lose on penalties. I can understand his frustration, I can understand he’s hurt, but it will take two to three weeks and he’ll turn the page, Christmas is coming. He’ll go back to his club and it’s another story. It’s part of football. Sometimes you’re down, sometimes you’re high, it’s all about emotions. He knows that. Saying things like this straight away after the eliminations when you’re out of the World Cup, on penalties on top of it, you have the feeling that you haven’t got what you deserve, but this is football. He knows that, it’s only emotion, I’m pretty sure he’ll be back stronger because it’ll help him you know, to fit his anger, so I’m not worried at all about Tomiyasu because he will be back stronger.

DB: Before the tournament, you mentioned Brazil were your favourite to win it. Now we’re at the quarter-final stage, has that changed?

EP: I was very impressed yesterday by Portugal. Switzerland are not an easy team to play against, and they thrashed them playing brilliant football. Brazil as well, I was very surprised with how the South Korean players were, they respected Brazil too much. I still believe it’s Brazil because Neymar is back. Sometimes I have the feeling when I look at Brazil, they look like Brazil again. The last 20 years they didn’t look like themselves. Now the magic is back in the team. It’s like a game in your neighbourhood with your friends, enjoying your game with smiles and technical skills. I was thinking, ‘Wow, the Joga Bonito is back.’ On top of that they’re smiling on the pitch, and this is something new for me because the last time I saw Brazil smiling on the pitch was 20 years ago. And when Brazilian players smile on the pitch, you have to be careful.

DB: You mentioned Portugal and how good they looked yesterday. How much does that have to do with Ronaldo being benched?

EP: I’m so sorry for him. He deserves an end in line with the rest of his career. I would love for it to be different. I think it’s so sad to see the way he finishes his career, the ego, the petulance and everything around it. I don’t like it, I don’t think anyone likes it, even the Portuguese manager doesn’t like it, Ten Hag doesn’t like it, a lot of teammates don’t like it, so I think he should understand that he should be a leader in the team, like in the Euros final when he was injured. He was acting as a manager on the bench, he was behind his teammates all the time, put pressure on them, this is how I like Ronaldo. We all want a different ending with his clubs and his national team. But he has to stop moaning all the time. Portugal showed yesterday they can play without him. Is it a coincidence that his replacement scored a hat trick? I won’t take the shortcut to say it’s not a coincidence, but still, you have to ask yourself the question. The movement is different when he’s not on the pitch. He vaporizes so much on the pitch, all his teammates play through him, there aren’t options you have to play through Ronaldo all the time, because he wants to score goals and make his story more important. Well sometimes it changes, and this is the reality for Ronaldo.

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Daniel is Head of Operations at Compare.bet. He has half a decade of experience writing on topics including sports betting, online casino and the NBA. Daniel also covers Premier League football for Compare.bet news and has interviewed Louis Saha, Richard Dunne and Gary Pallister. In his spare time, Daniel enjoys film photography and making Spotify playlists.

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