Colombia could block England's ‘easy’ path to final
Decision to rest players could come back and haunt Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate applauds the England fans after their 1-0 defeat to Belgium. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images
England was at the heart of an empire that conquered the world without a second thought but the nation has come to regard progress through the global football tournament as a journey fraught with treachery. Gareth Southgate didn’t set out to lose Thursday night’s lethargic encounter with Belgium in Kaliningrad. But for all his insistence on the necessity of his young team maintaining a winning habit, he opted to send out a hugely inexperienced team irrespective of the result.
They duly finished second and will now face Colombia rather than the notionally easier prospect of Japan. And it was hard to avoid England’s sense that they might have walked into a trap in Russia’s most western city. The only notional advantage of finishing as runners-up in Group G is that England avoid a potential quarter-final against Brazil: that this offers an ‘easier’ route to the final.
But it’s a dangerous conceit and one that Southgate has argued strongly against. Yet he opted to allow Belgium’s largely second-string side outplay his shadow team in a World Cup match that had all of the tension of a high summer international friendly. Events on Tuesday night in Moscow’s Spartak stadium will ultimately judge the wisdom of that decision.
“I thought Senegal would also be a very tough game in a different way,” Southgate pointed out when asked about the permutations late on Thursday night. “All of that group; It was up in the air. Colombia: They have some outstanding individual players but I believe it is a game we can win. It is going to be a fantastic challenge for us. We feel we are a team that are improving. We still have levels to reach but that is nothing we didn’t know. And that is another thing that might not bad: if we win again tonight then the reality of where we are might not be in people’s minds. We know where we are. We know how immaculate we have to be to win matches against the very best teams.”
The thorough methodology behind Southgate’s thinking seems like a return to the kind of precision and anti-hype associated with Alf Ramsey. Seventeen men have managed England since Ramsey stepped down in 1974. They were wildly varying characters, from Don Revie to Kevin Keegan to Sven to Fabio Capello to big Sam Allardyce, the man who might well be here in Russia.
The high point was the World Cup semi-final placing under Bobby Robson in the charged summer of 1990. The lows and the grand deflation of hope have been the common theme: sooner or later, the impossibility of the England job ate all those managers up. That’s why Southgate is in such a strange predicament. Qualification in a routine group was achieved without drama or gaffe: 10 games, eight wins, no defeats. He brought a young, unheralded team here to Russia under no real expectation and without the ridiculous circus that followed England’s golden generation.
They won their first two games and have looked organised and able. In a baking hot summer when England the land is tremulous over where Brexit is taking them, England the football team has never been so serene. That's why there was a faint unease about the stadium in Kaliningrad after Adnan Januzaj eased Belgium into the lead. It’s easy to guess at Southgate’s reasoning for resting so many players and he hinted at the myriad dilemmas this fixture presented.
“We don’t like losing matches but the primary objectives we wanted, we’ve got and I think the supporters in the stadium understood that as well. They could see we were pushing. If we put Harry (Kane) on for 10 minutes and somebody whacks him on the ankle, that would be ridiculous. Everyone knows the most important game is the knockout game.”
And it’s true: if Kane, fast becoming as totemic as Geoff Hurst, had been ruled out of Tuesday’s game, Southgate would have been slated. And there are other considerations. If they had won the group and then lost to Japan, that would be interpreted back home as a distinct failure whereas maybe a thorny exit against Colombia could be construed as progress. If they beat Japan, met and were torn apart by Brazil in the quarter-final, where would that leave them?
Southgate and his staff may never have articulated those thoughts but of course they have been bouncing around in their minds. But against that, if winning games is vital to England, then why not go after this full-bloodedly? And what could be more appealing to England than a chance to play Brazil (or Mexico) in a quarter final by beating Japan?
There is a nagging sense, too, that England may have been played a little by Roberto Martinez and Belgium: that they followed the Martinez line about resting players. When the Spaniard asked if he was ‘happy’ to have won the group - thereby entering the Brazil half of the table - he laughed. “Honestly? I am delighted with the performance.” That’s not quite the same thing but Martinez is in charge of a squad with capable of winning the tournament. His logic was clear.
“I think obviously we were very clear from the beginning that we felt winning at all costs wasn’t an option for us. You have to try to win - this is the World Cup. You want players to have the right approach. I think England tried to do the same. What was important for us was that we didn’t go to this game with the same 11 just to get the nine points and the good feeling and momentum. That was going to be very wrong. We had to spread the responsibility in the group, to see who is ready. And that makes us a stronger team. I don’t know what England had planned to do. They made a lot of changes as well.”
It remains to be seen if what was right for Belgium was also right for England. The fear now is that whatever happy spell England had fallen under may have been somehow broken by this conscious interruption of the team. Any time the camera switched to the England bench, there was an end-of-term feel about it; the players switched from giddiness to boredom.
“We could have played them again. No problem,” Southgate admitted. “But they had a game four days ago in extreme heat. This afternoon already you saw Colombia lost a key player, Japan lost a key player. So that was a risk we didn’t need to take. And I totally understand why people would question those decisions but we have to prepare the team the way we feel right. Rather than not have players on the training ground for the next two days because they are recovering we can start with something of a gym session and the next day prepare for Colombia.”
The Colombians’ route to Tuesday night has been as chaotic as England’s has smooth. Southgate will face one of football’s great survivors in the 78-year-old José Pékerman, the enigmatic Argentinian who prefers to leave the Colombian media and public guessing as to his motivations. He raised eyebrows by cutting Edwin Cardona, a strong presence through the qualifying campaign, from his final squad for Russia and was under huge pressure for both his selection and tactics in losing to Japan. But in pairing James Rodríguez and Juan Quintero for their second game against Poland, Pékerman’s team took flight for a 3-0 win. There was enough in that tape to give Southgate plenty of late evenings reviewing the game.
A huge night for England. Valiant as Southgate’s efforts have been, the expectation and hype will be in overdrive by the game day. The 1966 mythology will be back in full force. What England 2018 has in common with that bunch is a kind of humility brought to bear by Southgate’s stewardship and that thoroughness of his. One of England’s subconscious fears of these gripping World Cup nights is the penalty shootout. It is clear now that previous managers left that eventuality to the gods only to discover that the gods could not make a David Batty or, for that matter, a Southgate, suddenly accomplished at converting insanely pressurised penalty kicks. That problem has been addressed.
“In terms of penalties we have been practicing and going through strategies on those since March. We have done various studies and had practices but it would have been too late to start that now, three days away from a game. We are aware the margins will be really fine and we have to be prepared physically and mentally to go to extra time - and to go beyond that, if that is what it takes.”