Bill Gates once said “To win big sometimes you have to take big risks.” He obviously was not referring to the final group game of a World Cup finals but Gareth Southgate’s lineup in Kaliningrad against Belgium echoed a similar sentiment.
As fans we expected some changes. A couple, maybe even four at a push, but the moment it was revealed that England were to change eight of the outfield players that played in the 6-1 annihilation of Panama on the Sunday just gone, the sentiment was that Southgate had taken a big risk in order to cement a place for his England side on the so-called “easier” half of the draw.
The risk is such that defeat to Colombia in the round of 16 – a game in which the England camp and fans alike seem to have forgotten about – on route to the quarter-final has the potential to open Gareth Southgate up to the fate that many an England manager before him has suffered. More than likely Southgate’s job as England manager will come to an end if he fails to progress past the first knockout round.
Overlooking Colombia, a sound team in their own right who will be a difficult test for England, is dangerous. The consensus that England have an easier quarter-final – against Sweden or Switzerland as oppose to Brazil or Mexico – is also hardly as cut and dried as some believe.
Sweden were largely unfancied coming into the tournament but topped a group containing current world champions Germany. Whereas Switzerland came through their group in second place after beating a lot of people’s dark horses for the tournament, Serbia, and draw with Brazil – the team England seemingly wanted to avoid had they won the group. This “easy” quarter-final is not as easy as it seems. Neither is any game of football. Have we not learnt from history?
We only have to look back to Euro 2016 at England last major tournament. After navigating their way through an easy looking group in second place, a first knockout fixture awaited against Iceland. The quarter-final beckoned, surely. Iceland? Easy. That word again. We all know what happened there.
The problem facing England now as they head into Tuesdays game against Colombia is that for all the praise heaped on them so far this competition, they now have no momentum. It ground to a halt on Thursday night in a drab 1-0 defeat to Belgium. Winning is a habit – one that England don’t enjoy much at tournaments – and is one that you need to develop at a World Cup, and keep for as long as possible. Losing – also a habit – is one to avoid at all cost. Viewing a loss, even in one game, because of how a tournaments draw may look after it as acceptable is a bad habit to get into.
Nations such as Brazil, Spain, Germany and such like who have achieved glory at a major finals don’t adopt such attitudes towards games. They have the confidence and the belief that they are capable of despatching any team they are drawn against.
We now face a Colombia side who have won their last two group games without conceding a goal. A side full of confidence heading into the knockout phase to play a team who is on no win streak, has no momentum going, and has not won a knockout match at a major tournament since 2006.
Ironically, had we put out a side to beat Belgium in Kaliningrad and won the group, the path to the quarter finals would arguably have been easier. There’s a hard work and a pace about Japan but Colombia will hold a sterner test for England in the round of 16.
England have played some good football in this tournament so far. They’ve changed the way the nation views their team. The country saw a young side, afraid of nobody, playing the style of football we’ve longed for in the past. The optimism was building, and fast. To drain some of that optimism with a performance such as the Belgium one could prove to be a major error of judgement on the part of Gareth Southgate. Time will reveal, and only on Tuesday evening will we truly know the impact of the Belgium defeat on this side.
It could prove to be a masterstroke, of course. There are two sides to every coin. There are also two sides to every tournament’s knockout phase, and despite arguments on the contrary, there is no easy side to any draw.