Gareth Southgate contemplates six England changes for Belgium but insists victory is imperative
Gareth Southgate is contemplating as many as six changes for the final World Cup group game against Belgium on Thursday but insists that England do not want to lose momentum and that their “mindset” is to go for the win.
Finishing runner-up in Group G could, arguably, create a smoother path into the knockout stages but Southgate said it was “dangerous territory to try to plot and predict”. He recalled the failure at Euro 2016 when drawing Iceland was celebrated, after a goalless match against Slovakia when wholesale changes were made, and added that it was about time England claimed a big scalp.
There is a balance to be struck between resting players and maintaining momentum following the victories against Tunisia and Panama, which secured qualification for the last 16.
Arguably the player needed to be protected most is Harry Kane but it is understood that the striker, with five goals in the race for the Golden Boot, is desperate to play. A compromise may well be struck, with Kane starting but not playing for more than an hour.
A significant factor will be the physical state of the players following the 6-1 defeat of Panama which, although comfortable, was played in stifling heat in Nizhny Novgorod.
Roberto Martínez, the Belgium coach, has suggested he will make many changes, with star names rested, and there has been a discussion in the country’s media about finishing second and, potentially, avoiding Brazil in the quarter-finals. Belgium and England are equal on points and goal difference, which means if they draw, the group will be decided on disciplinary records. England are on top, having collected one fewer yellow card.
Asked whether he would want to finish second, Southgate was emphatic.
“For our country, that would be a very difficult mindset to have,” he said. “We want to win every game we go into. I don’t know how we would go into a game not wanting to win and not wanting to play well. So, I think that’s dangerous territory if we start trying to plot and predict where we might end up. We had a really favourable draw, we all thought, in the last tournament [Euro 2016] and it didn’t work out that way.
“I think we just have to keep playing as well as we can, keep preparing the team the right way, keep the momentum and I have to keep the squad involved. That’s the one thing I think is really important.”
Southgate is mindful of giving as many players in his squad the chance to play and not least because of his own experience as he, along with Martin Keown, was not used at the 2002 World Cup. Southgate has already used 16 players.
“I felt it was important for [Jamie] Vardy, [Fabian] Delph and [Danny] Rose, who have trained so well and been such an important part of the group as more senior players [to come on against Panama],” he said. “There were four or five others I’d have liked to get on the pitch for that same reason. Balancing that with a couple of the younger ones was a difficult decision. I’ve got to think through all of those things, competition for places, players who need match minutes and keeping the unity of the squad.”
Leaving out Kane, however, may prove tricky, even if Southgate suggested it was possible. “It will be very important for Harry, so I always have to balance what’s right for the squad as well,” Southgate said. “He’s gone ahead of some major, major names in English football history in terms of World Cup goals. That should make him incredibly proud but he also knows the team is the most important thing and we have to make decisions that are right for the team.”
Dele Alli’s return to training on Monday, following a thigh injury, puts him in contention and it is likely Southgate will want to rest Jesse Lingard. Delph could also be in line to feature, while Marcus Rashford could replace Raheem Sterling and be given his first start.
Another expected starter is Eric Dier, with Jordan Henderson rested, while Gary Cahill should come into defence, and Southgate will not risk Kieran Trippier if he has not recovered from the slight injury he felt against Panama.
Southgate will weigh up switching Ashley Young to right wing-back – the most likely option – or starting with Trent Alexander-Arnold, with Rose on the left. If all that happens, it would be six changes and what helps Southgate is that most of those players could be in his first XI in any case.
But Southgate is also mindful of England finally beating one of the stronger nations in a World Cup. It has not happened since Argentina were defeated in the group stages in 2002. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve played all the top teams,” he said.
“We haven’t been able to beat any yet. We know the level the likes of France and Brazil and Spain are capable of hitting. We all know the quality of the Belgium squad and the individuals they have.
“We are improving and I think the lads are gaining belief in what we are doing and confidence from their performances. I’ve said all along, I don’t want to limit what they feel is possible and that’s still how I feel.”