Kaliningrad (Russia) (AFP) – Gareth Southgate is finally experiencing the level of scrutiny that comes with being England manager at a World Cup as his gamble to make eight changes in losing 1-0 to Belgium comes under the microscope.
By finishing second to the Red Devils in Group G, England avoided a loaded top half of the draw featuring France, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Portugal.
A quarter-final against Switzerland or Sweden looks far more enticing. But first England have to get to the last eight by ending a 12-year wait to win a knockout game in a major tournament when they face Colombia on Tuesday.
“Momentum Lost, Feelgood Factor Lost, Game Lost,” said the Daily Mail, after England raised expectations by beating Tunisia and Panama in their opening two games to make the last 16.
“This was by all accounts, the smart result for Gareth Southgate and England,” wrote the Mail’s chief sports writer Martin Samuel. “So why didn’t it feel that way?”
By making wholesale changes, including dropping the tournament’s top goalscorer Harry Kane to the bench, Southgate has invited pressure on himself and his young squad for the first time during his reign.
“England will play Colombia and if you start thinking any further than that, I think you are risking a lot,” warned Belgium manager Roberto Martinez.
Before flying to Russia, many would have judged a run to the quarter-finals a success for England after they failed to get beyond the group stage four years ago and following their humiliating defeat to Iceland in the last 16 of Euro 2016.
Now, if they find a way past Colombia, they will fancy their chances of reaching the semi-finals.
– Pressure –
The team would then face the pressure of expectations — a different challenge from potentially facing Brazil in the other half of the draw with little to lose.
“Better to lose to Neymar than Granit Xhaka, to die a heroic death at the height of your powers,” said the Guardian, comparing Arsenal’s Swiss midfielder to the world’s most expensive player.
Southgate said his reasoning for changing a winning side was based on keeping his star players as fresh as possible rather than plotting an easier path towards the final.
Introducing tournament topscorer Kane even as a substitute he claimed would have been “ridiculous” for fear the Tottenham striker could pick up an injury.
The England manager’s decision was also taken with squad harmony in mind. He has spoken openly of his frustration as a player at not playing a single minute at the 2002 World Cup.
By introducing Danny Welbeck rather than Kane from the bench for the final 15 minutes in Kaliningrad, he ensured all of his outfield players have now been involved across the three group games.
“We’ve got 20 outfield players who have now played in a World Cup. That’s hugely important for the feeling in our camp over the next few weeks,” said Southgate.
But the stark contrast between thrashing Panama 6-1 and a tame defeat without the same energy, excitement or end product, only served to show Southgate’s squad is not as deep as he would wish.
“Southgate hoped that by involving his reserve team last night he would reinforce the harmony of his squad, close any gaps between first XI and the rest. In playing terms, a deflating night did exactly the opposite,” wrote Matt Dickinson in the Times.
England’s returning stars must now perform in Moscow or their manager will face a mighty backlash.