Gareth Southgate is entering a defining week – he will either come home from the World Cup as a national hero… or just another England manager who fell short in the knockout phase.
Up until Thursday night’s group defeat by Belgium, Southgate hardly put a foot wrong.
The way he has built his own team, conducted himself and portrayed English football in the media has been exemplary.
But, but, but… The word I kept hearing before the Belgium game, from Southgate’s own lips, was “momentum” after England’s last-gasp win against Tunisia and thrashing of Panama.
He decided to make eight changes against Belgium, and his team’s momentum was stalled by a 1-0 defeat.
It’s 20-20 hindsight to say he should have picked his strongest side, but we knew Belgian coach Roberto Martinez was planning wholesale changes: If England really, really wanted to win the group, surely Southgate would have selected his best XI.
As it is, he’s put all his eggs in one basket.
I hope he’s picked the right basket – because this is an unbelievable opportunity for England to go further than at any major tournament since Euro 96.
If England beat Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday – and achieve only their third win in the knockout phase since 1990 – you would probably fancy them against Switzerland or Sweden in the quarter-finals. Southgate and his players would come home as superstars.
But if they come unstuck yet again when the knockout stuff begins, England’s World Cup campaign will be a failure.
Roy Hodgson made a raft of unforced changes against Slovakia at the Euros two years ago, and England were then hopeless when it mattered against Iceland.
Please don’t tell me Southgate is going to go down the same road.
After all the optimism and positivity of the build-up and two opening games, if all those changes backfired on Southgate it would feel like a disaster.
I understand the logic of keeping Harry Kane fresh for the last 16, but he looked like a caged tiger on the bench against Belgium.
With five goals in two games, he had some wind in his sails – yes, that word ‘momentum’ again – and when strikers get on a roll, all they want to do is keep it going.
But if Kane struggles to pick up the pace against Colombia, resting him will look wasteful and misguided.
All we learned on Thursday night is that Belgium have greater strength in depth than England…. and Southgate’s original starting XI against Tunisia, with one or two possible exceptions, was his best team. None of the reserves made a cast-iron case to start in Moscow on Tuesday.
Marcus Rashford missed a great chance, Jamie Vardy put in a decent shift but carried no threat, Danny Rose got done by Adnan Januzaj for Belgium’s winner and Eric Dier was quiet.
Trent Alexander-Arnold did well, but he’s not going to gazump Kieran Trippier for the right wing-back slot.
So without playing, Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Jordan Henderson’s stock rose, and we found out Kane is irreplaceable as centre-forward.
Whatever happens against Colombia, I don’t want to hear any more wisdom that England will be a serious force at international level in four years’ time when this group has matured.
They have an outstanding chance NOW to reach the last four – and perhaps go even all the way.
Tuesday night is judgement night for Gareth Southgate. I just hope he hasn’t piled unnecessary pressure on himself by resting players who were flying.
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