Southgate’s gamble was calculated and credible but may still cost England

The England boss' apparent decision to try to avoid finishing top of 'G' has polarised opinion, but there are plenty of arguments for and against...


“We’ve not won a knockout game since 2006,” Gareth Southgate said in a press conference before his England side lost at the hands of an unrecognisable Belgium. “So why we are starting to plot which would be a better venue for our semi-final is beyond me.”

Gareth Southgate, for all we now laud him, is a liar. He showed this by making eight changes to what had been a well-oiled English machine on Thursday. England’s line-up went from something more like a fine Jaguar E-Type to being better compared with a Reliant Robin: interesting, but largely unstable.

The fella was quite clearly thinking ahead to further rounds in the 2018 World Cup, building on a nationwide assurance that mythical success was only a hop, skip and jump from a glorious second-round triumph.

But the arguments both for and against Southgate’s smoke and mirrors are largely immaterial.

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The two sides of the debate appear to be as follows: by changing the side, Southgate increases the probability of an easier path to the semi-finals, rests key players and was ultimately rewarded with an extra day’s preparation for the round of 16. Conversely, he loses momentum and disrupts a winning formula with a disjointed line-up and belief-knocking defeat.

Both notions are daft.

In practice, this World Cup has been full of upsets. We’ve seen giants under performing and minnows doing themselves proud. To hedge your bets on avoiding the towering Goliath might seem smart on paper, but we all know who wins in reality.

The suggestion that facing Colombia is somehow going to be a foregone conclusion is nothing short of absurd. Some of football’s most respected voices have completely and bone idly overlooked the fact that José Pékerman’s men have won every game apart from the one in which they went down to ten men after three minutes and look a troubling threat to World Cup glory.

Should the Three Lions triumph, facing Switzerland or Sweden is no easy task either. The former pulled off a shocking draw against Southgate’s nightmare-inhabiting Brazil and the latter dispatched Mexico – a potential rival had England finished top – with impressive conviction.

Of course, postponing the fixture with Brazil is an attractive option, but the Seleção have been far from their blazing best this tournament. To hamper the growing belief and optimism not seen in England for over a decade with the purpose of trying to control the uncontrollable is a pitiful waste of drunken Baddiel and Skinner take-offs.

But Southgate hasn’t got it entirely wrong. Momentum doesn’t always run in football and there are practical advantages to having things shaken up. Fitness, for example, is crucial in the fast-paced environment of a knock-out tournament and the 47-year-old appears to be encouraging a way of playing that will rely – especially further down the line – upon endurance.

The rapid, expansive football England are trying to play takes its toll. A regular reliance upon wingers or full-backs bombing down the flanks does so too. The likes of Kieran Trippier, who had been fundamental to England’s success in the opening two games, will benefit vastly from the rest and extra preparation time.

Similarly, had Harry Kane picked up a knock – as John Stones unnervingly has – what then? England’s mouth-breathing hitman has become the lifeblood of this side and losing him for the games that truly count would damage any dreams of glory and success beyond repair.

Southgate knew that. At 1-0 down, he brought on Danny Welbeck instead of his Golden Boot contending hero. That says something.

Ultimately, both sides for and against Southgate’s reshaping the team have some weight and also some rather speculative, ungrounded assumptions.

Southgate knows he’s in a risky position whereby he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He knows that the blame lies on his shoulders the moment England under perform.

Hoards of armchair pundits – and real, alarmingly moronic, professional ‘experts’ – would come out, hoisting the pitchforks and burning torches regardless of whether England maintained their successful status quo or unleashed the curveball seen on Thursday. There’s always an axe to grind.

The evidence supporting and opposing England’s gaffer is fairly balanced. Southgate, typically the pragmatic boss, should then perhaps have reigned in his gamble. Changes were necessary, yes. But the side he fielded against Belgium will not come close to playing again this World Cup.

The best thing would have been to rest the real game-changing players: Kane, Trippier, Alli and Lingard, possibly. Though it’s not usually advisable, Southgate could have been more reactionary than rigid and called upon tactical substitutions should the key men playing appear to flag.

This way, he could have shielded his stars, maintained form, and still given the Belgians the battle England fans desired. It may have been the safer option, but England haven’t had a sniff of success once in recent years and Southgate looks most likely to choreograph something like achievement more than anyone else.

When heartbreak looms, playing it safe is not always so bad.

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