Only Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff will know whether the decision to rest their entire offensive arsenal was a deliberate tactical ploy or an act of generosity. The eight changes made by the England manager for last week’s group finale against Belgium (an approach mirrored by his counterpart Roberto Martinez) have been analysed to death over the past few days.
However, it still remains unclear as to why Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and the rest of Southgate’s primary attacking options were not selected. Some think he should be applauded for giving the likes of Phil Jones, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Gary Cahill a chance to pull on the three lions shirt in a competitive tournament, albeit one that had no bearing on England’s progression to the knockout stages. For many of these players, it could be their only contribution to the World Cup. Southgate himself knows the feeling of never being called upon in a World Cup, having been an unused substitute for the entire 2002 tournament.
The bigger picture
The wisdom of these team changes will be assessed after Tuesday night’s last-16 encounter with a vibrant Colombia side; a team that is beginning to show the attacking flair that spearheaded their charge to a quarter-final place in Brazil four years ago. Regardless of the true motivation for his selection decisions, what we can say now is that Southgate is showing an awareness of the bigger picture that England have often lacked in tournaments.
Discretion can be the better part of valour. England did not lose any of their first-choice players through needless injuries, and the likes of Dele Alli have also been allowed more time to try and contend for selection. England’s half of the draw also looks even better after Sunday’s results and one suspects Martinez would also swap his side’s own route for England’s potential path through the knock-out stages.
Southgate’s men can only reap the rewards of their good fortune if they can get past Radamel Falcao and company at the Otkrytie Arena, but this cannot be ignored as the second fillip of defeat to Belgium.
A reality check
Momentum is an oft-referenced word in sport. England did not entirely lose theirs on Thursday night – the starting line up consisted of a completely different set of players – and their defeat to a similarly much-changed Belgium team has surely sharpened the competitive edges of the likes of Kane and Lingard (who will inevitably come back into the team for the Colombia match). It has also provided a welcome reality check and tempered domestic expectations that were sailing into the footballing stratosphere after the slightly surreal experience of watching the team put six past Panama.
I cannot endorse the view that the England team were encouraged to, nor did they deliberately lose against Belgium. Since he has taken over as England manager, Southgate’s approach has always been about the bigger picture.
All of these plans could come crashing down around the England manager if his players are bested by Colombia, but Southgate, unlike managers before him, has held his nerve with team selection up until this point. England have been handed a golden opportunity and the players must now vindicate their manager.