The question is simple: Mistake or Masterstroke?
With England having secured a place in the World Cup Round of 16 for the first time in eight years, manager Gareth Southgate had a decision to make for the final group match against Belgium.
There were suggestions that finishing in second position would be more beneficial to England in the long-run of the tournament, as it would allow them to miss the chance of facing nations such as Brazil, Argentina, France and Portugal before the final next month.
A runners-up place would mean the Three Lions would face Colombia in the knockout stage and if they managed to win, an encounter with either Sweden or Switzerland would stand in the way of their first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
Before the final fixtures in Group G got underway, two former England internationals made their opinions very clear:
Lots of talk about #ENG looking to finish 2nd in the group. I’ve never gone on the pitch & not tried to win the game or to take a draw. I don’t know how you would mentally approach a game like that. It does wonders for your confidence to keep on winning games! Come on @England! pic.twitter.com/67QPLaEIXd
— Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) June 28, 2018
If I were a player, I’d want to win the match. I’d want to win the group. I’d want to win a bloody knockout game for once. And I’d want to play against Brazil in the quarter finals of The World Cup. That’s what it’s all about.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) June 28, 2018
Although this had been billed as the match of the group before the tournament started, with both teams having already qualified, it turned out to be a forgetful display with Belgium making nine changes to England’s eight.
Former Manchester United forward Adnan Januzaj notched up the winning goal early in the second half to hand the Belgians a third consecutive victory in the tournament, securing first-place and setting up a match with Japan in the next round.
The defeat means that England must now overcome Colombia next Tuesday to keep their World Cup dreams alive and the result received a mixed response online:
We’ve had that many bad experiences we actually aren’t sure whether something is a positive or negative anymore .
Beat Columbia + Sweden or Switzerland to get to a WC semi Final . Amazing opportunity for us!
All 4 would snap your hand off to have that chance 🏴
— Gary Neville (@GNev2) June 28, 2018
I think that's the best result for England (better half of draw and schedule) but Southgate has gambled. Lose to Colombia and he will have some explaining to do
— Matt Law (@Matt_Law_DT) June 28, 2018
Losing a World Cup game is, and always will be, a lousy feeling. Routes and permutations can't change that. England tried to win but 8 changes were too many. Think that was a mistake, personally, but they can still be hopeful v Colombia.
— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) June 28, 2018
Everything that Southgate has done in the England job has been about the long-term. Last night was no different. Rested players because he thought it would benefit team in long run. Played others because they needed game time. Took courage to do that.
— Oliver Holt (@OllieHolt22) June 29, 2018
Just to be clear, regardless of the outcome against the South Americans, Southgate shouldn’t be hung out to dry because he had the luxury to rest some of his key players, and he took it.
You could only imagine the criticism that would have been directed towards him, had he decided to put on Harry Kane in order to rescue a point, only to see his star man suffer an injury.
However, the most concerning aspect of these past few days has been the resurrection of that English arrogance amongst supporters and media alike that has led to unrealistic expectations in the past.
The assumption that England should be delighted to face a Colombia side who have just notched up two consecutive victories is beyond belief.
The assumption that England should feel comfortable meeting either a Sweden side who brushed aside the same Mexico team which started Germany’s World Cup downfall, or a Switzerland team who managed to hold favourites Brazil to a 1-1 draw needs to be reconsidered.
This sense of superiority amongst fans and even perhaps players as well has seen the national team suffer humiliating moments especially over the last decade, from failing to earn a point at home against Croatia to qualify for Euro 2008, to crumbling against Iceland in the Euros just two years ago.
With the heatwave across the UK set to continue up until the Round of 16 tie, let’s hope that Southgate does his utmost best to cool expectations amongst the Barmy Army.
The fact that Germany has been eliminated in the group stages shows that this World Cup is full of surprises but let’s be honest, the real surprise would be the Three Lions making it through to the quarter-final stage, given their recent knockout record.
So, to answer the question posed before: It certainly would be a mistake to expect England to reach the latter stages of the World Cup, but Southgate and his group of players have already pulled off a masterstroke in getting the nation behind them for the first time in a long time.
Photo Credit @ Wikimedia Commons