England’s comprehensive 6-1 victory over Panama has sent the entire country into an almost alarming level of optimism for the team’s chances, and has left the standings in Group G finely poised going into the final day of games.
With both Panama and Tunisia bound to play a dead rubber match followed by an early flight home, it has left the other teams, England and Belgium, to face each other in a straight play-off for the first and second spots in the group. A quick search on any social media site will lead you to believe that many fans want England to either play for a draw — accruing as many yellow cards as possible in the process — or just simply lose in order to finish in second place and get an easier draw in the next stages of the competition.
The notion that they should do anything that isn’t focused 100 per cent on victory is patently ridiculous, and to suggest otherwise shows a lack of respect to the competition and a complete oversight of the psychological side of tournament football.
Momentum is Key
When you look at interviews with sportspeople who have achieved success in an unlikely manner, there is nearly always a common theme: they say the impetus from a victory spurs them on to the next one. A perfect example of this is the Leicester City team that won the 2015-16 Premier League against all the odds. The fact that they never lost consecutive games, or even drew more than two in a row throughout the season, for that matter, is a testament to their unwavering belief that they could continue winning until the end. This kind of belief is especially pertinent in a World Cup where teams are only ever 7 games from the trophy. To lose one so early on could be catastrophic to the morale of the team and leave the writing on the wall for another embarrassing exit in the early rounds.
Also, given that England have only faced opposition that they were widely expected to beat, playing a full-strength side against Belgium is important to give the players and management an idea of how the team performs when they’re not allowed to dominate the game. In addition to this, Belgium also have three world-class attackers in the form of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne; so it will be a stern test for England’s defenders to keep them quiet during the game. If they can do so, however, it will bring an invaluable confidence boost to the part of the team that had the most doubters before the tournament.
Even if Roberto Martinez does follow up on his post-match comments and make extensive changes to his team and rest key players, that is no reason for England to do the same. That is the ideal time to make a statement and really announce themselves to the rest of the competition. This will change the narrative around the team from the other nation’s points of view and instil even more confidence in the players that will stick with them when they inevitably come up against harder opposition.
A Loss Is A Blow to Southgate’s Vision
In my view, it is too reductive to look at England’s last game in isolation and say the result was due to Panama being a lesser team. Whilst that is true, it’s not the whole story: that result would never have been possible without Harry Kane’s 91st-minute winner against Tunisia. Something like a last-gasp win that rescues two points from what would have otherwise been a tepid draw serves as a shared experience that galvanises a squad and goes to reinforce the togetherness that Gareth Southgate has brought to the squad.
Whilst serving as pundits, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard spoke eloquently about their experiences whilst on England duty and were candid about the fact that cliques formed along club lines. That kind of atmosphere of division isn’t conducive to a team game like football and appears, at least from the outside, to have been removed from the England camp by Southgate’s philosophies of inclusion and well-spirited camaraderie. It is impossible to understate how important it is for the team to avoid any of the players having doubts about their teammate’s abilities or professionalism and to keep the squad in harmony.
Furthermore, he has also gone on to foster good relations with the media, which has helped to reduce the hostile feeling that usually forms between the two groups during a major tournament. This strong relationship became strained ahead of the Panama game, when a number of newspapers published a picture of the alleged team sheet that had been taken during a training session. As England have learned from past tournaments, their chances of success can be derailed by the intense media scrutiny and, rightly or wrongly, it is essential to keep them on side and avoid the negative press that would come with a defeat.
Disrespecting the Last 16
The main focus on where England finish in their group centres on getting to play an “easier” team in the quarter-finals. This makes an enormous assumption that England will even make it that far. Should they, they are likely to play either Senegal or Colombia in the round of 16, which are two teams ought not to be underestimated. After their initial loss to Japan, Colombia finally found their feet during a solid 3-0 victory over Poland, where they displayed the free-flowing attacking football that made them so entertaining in the 2014 World Cup. Senegal have also been excellent in the tournament so far and, with Sadio Mane up front, could definitely pose a threat to the England backline.
Once you reach the knock-out phase of a World Cup, the idea of “easy” games are a complete fallacy, since every team will have that hunger and desire to win; especially if they are playing one of the “big” teams.
It could be said that English fans have unrealistic expectations of their team due to past glories, but if they truly want their team to be considered within the upper echelons of national teams then they have to play the difficult games and be ruthless in their desire to win, irrelevant of the circumstances.
In my mind, I have no doubt Gareth Southgate will be doing everything in his power to prepare to win this game, and I implore all fans to get behind him on this and end this pointless debate. The best thing for England is to win – end of.