Sunday 18 November 2018

Jamie Carragher: No phoney war - go for the jugular to build on belief

Momentum paramount to achieving real goals

Harry Kane celebrates scoring his second penalty in England’s 6-1 rout of Panama. Photo: Alex Morton/Getty Images
Harry Kane celebrates scoring his second penalty in England’s 6-1 rout of Panama. Photo: Alex Morton/Getty Images

Jamie Carragher

In terms of progression into the knockout stage, England's meeting with Belgium is meaningless. In terms of determining which side are best equipped to go deep into the World Cup, it is one of the most significant games in the nation's recent history.

Victory over Tunisia and Panama presents an opportunity Gareth Southgate could not have planned any better.

Rather than treat the fixture with Belgium as a final group game, tactically and psychologically he and his staff should be drilling the message into his players that the knockout stage starts now.

Of course, technically that is not the case. England can afford to lose their next game. But England have become so unaccustomed to taking big scalps at major tournaments- particularly in the knockout rounds - I want to see them approach Thursday's game with the mentality of a last-16 tie.

This can be the perfect dress rehearsal. It might be that finishing below Belgium creates what appears to be a more 'favourable' draw, avoiding Brazil or Germany in the last eight. Equally, the group's top side may avoid a tricky last-16 meeting with Senegal, who have two stars in Sadio Mane and Ismaila Sarr.

What looks more desirable does not always work that way - have people forgotten the pre-match optimism before Iceland two years ago?

England must plot their route by trying to win against Belgium rather than half-heartedly accepting a defeat, or waiting to see if the fair-play table decides the placing.

I want to see England adopt the mentality they will need against tougher opponents in the knockout stage.

How often have we seen the side settle into a holding pattern where extra-time or penalties loom?

If the game is level with 20 minutes remaining, what better chance to take tactical risks to open the game and go for the win, knowing it is not the end of the competition should it go wrong?

Even if a draw is working to England's advantage, there is a chance to experiment with more tactical drills with regards protecting a result.

Soar

Imagine the belief in the players if their courage secures a positive outcome again Belgium. Confidence will soar.

Rather than worrying who England can meet, a message can be sent to others that England are the side everyone else should seek to avoid.

Here's why it is so important England make a statement: Paraguay, Belgium, Cameroon, Spain, Denmark and Ecuador. These are the six countries England have beaten in knockout tournament football since 1966. The only superpower in that group are Spain, who lost on penalties at Wembley in Euro 96.

England have lost the ability to beat heavyweight opponents when it matters. They have a poor record against more fancied teams due to a lack of belief.

You can point to the ongoing issue with penalty shoot-outs, but on some of those occasions the final stages drifted towards the inevitability of penalties, neither side willing to gamble.

The mentality issue hurt England, then. Such are the scars, it has reached the point the country and the players expect us to lose on pens.

The current squad can practise as much as they like, but no-one wants that scenario again. Instead of practising penalties, use this game to practise how to avoid them.

Unlike so many English club teams in the Champions League, England have failed to show they can upset the odds when meeting higher-ranked teams.

For all the encouragement taken from the first two World Cup games, that is the next albatross for Southgate's side to remove. Talk of taking Belgium lightly because 'it does not really matter' is dangerous.

For momentum and confidence, the impact can be much greater than wins over two weaker opponents.

Regardless of what Belgium's manager Roberto Martinez is saying, he will feel the same. There is no way the Belgians will want to go into the knockout phase on the back of a demoralising result, regardless of what it means in terms of their next opponent.

By Thursday, it may be clearer to both teams what is at stake with regards future opposition.

That will enable Southgate and Martinez to determine what they want from their side in terms of game management, but the fact remains that even if on paper finishing second seems more beneficial, the approach must be positive.

After two games of dominance at set-plays, England will naturally have to prepare for a stiffer defensive examination against Belgium.

This has become the set-piece and penalties World Cup, the tournament dominated by the introduction of the video assistant referees.

VAR has been a star of the tournament as much as Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane.

I had reservations, but the speed of the decision-making has improved and although it is not flawless, it is much better in correcting obvious errors.

It has also changed the competition by ensuring more fouls are punished, especially in the penalty area.

The technology is making referees more vigilant with 15 penalties already - just three short of a World Cup record.

Those teams who are best prepared with their corner and free-kick routines are reaping the reward, and that bodes well given England have so obviously focused on this on the training ground.

England benefited against Panama and should be credited for their routines.

Fundamental

I can barely remember any time being spent on set-pieces during my international career. Now it is fundamental. Six of England's eight goals have been from a dead ball.

This is not a coincidence. The movement in the penalty area is well drilled, as seen by the way Kane found space twice against Tunisia and Ashley Young ably blocked off his marker for John Stones' opening goal against Panama.

But against stronger sides the VAR can hurt England, too. They will have as many set-pieces and the quality of delivery will be of a higher standard.

It is encouraging England can iron out these issues from such a position of strength.

I am sure Southgate will banish any voice suggesting a failure against Belgium could be more help than hindrance.

In football, momentum is everything. The next game is infinitely more important than ill-judged presumptions about a possible quarter-final opponent. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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