Belfast Telegraph

Southgate knows it's crucial to look at the big picture

 

By Adrian Rutherford

Gareth Southgate won't be swayed by sentiment when deciding whether to rest Harry Kane for England's final group game against Belgium.

Both sides are already through to the knockout stages, with Thursday night's match determining who finishes top.

Southgate has hinted strongly at changes, mindful of a potential last-16 game just four days later.

His biggest decision is whether to leave out his captain, who has five goals already.

Kane's treble against Panama in the 6-1 win on Sunday was only the third time an England player has scored a hat-trick in a World Cup match. He has also moved ahead of Bobby Charlton and Michael Owen's World Cup goals tally.

Afterwards, the 24-year-old said he had no desire to sit out the Belgium game.

His manager has to be more pragmatic though, and Southgate indicated that he will look at the wider picture.

"It's obviously very important for Harry, but I have to always balance what's right for the squad as well," he said.

"He's sitting really proudly, I think he's gone ahead of some major, major names in English football history in terms of World Cup goals, and that is making him incredibly proud.

"But he also knows that the team is the most important thing, and we've got to make decisions that are right for the team."

With England and Belgium assured of progression, Thursday's clash in Kaliningrad no longer carries the same importance.

Both teams have an identical points tally and goal difference, with disciplinary records placing England marginally on top.

As the roadmap for the tournament's latter stages starts to emerge, the focus is turning to potential knockout opponents.

The group winners, if they win their last-16 tie, could meet Brazil in the quarter-finals.

For some, finishing second - bringing a likely last-eight match against Mexico or Switzerland - is not an unappealing scenario.

But that would depend on England not winning on Thursday, and that isn't something that Southgate is contemplating.

"I think for our country that would be a very difficult mindset to have," he said.

"You want to win every game of football that you go into, so I don't know how you would go into a game not wanting to win and not wanting to play well.

"I think that's dangerous territory for us, if we start to try and plot and predict where we might end up.

"We had a really favourable draw in the last tournament (Iceland at Euro 2016) and it didn't work out that way.

"So I think we just have to keep playing as well as we can, preparing the team in the right way and trying to keep momentum.

"And I've got to keep the squad involved - that's the one thing I think is really important."

Which brings the focus back to Thursday, and the likelihood of changes.

Marcus Rashford is one of several players who could be drafted in if - as expected - Southgate opts to shake things up.

He is wary of how the demands of tournament football can drain players.

Sunday's conditions were a test, with England's players reaching for water bottles 90 seconds into the game in the heat of Nizhny Novgorod.

"I think (Sunday) would have taken a lot out of everybody," Southgate said.

"Of course there is a short turnaround between the Belgium game and the next round.

"There is all of that. You've got to manage energy and we're better placed to do that because we keep the ball for longer.

"But nevertheless, even though we dominated possession against Panama you could see the players at the end - it's taken a lot out of them. So the physical part is something we've got to manage well."

Southgate was still nursing a sore shoulder, after dislocating it in a running accident last Wednesday, as he spoke to journalists.

It has meant some changes to his routine. His daily run has been swapped for a wattbike - "I'm not enjoying it," he revealed.

He still celebrated each of England's goals on Sunday enthusiastically.

Then at the final whistle he embraced his players - first searching out Raheem Sterling, whose international goal drought continues.

He then accompanied the team as they applauded the travelling England supporters.

For Southgate, that connection with the fans is important.

"I know what it means to the supporters, they've been brilliant," he continued.

"It's been said there aren't many here, but there's enough, they've been making enough noise and their support has been brilliant. We know what it means to them when we go over at the end. We should all enjoy those moments.

"You only get a few tournament matches anyway, so you've got to enjoy your wins."

That includes the players too.

The music was pumping as England headed back to their training base at Repino, while the squad was given the night off to relax and have a beer.

Southgate, mindful of the negativity that has surrounded past squads, wants to foster a more enjoyable environment.

"You have to enjoy your win and the fact you've qualified, then we can start the process of the next phase of what we are trying to do," he added.

"You have to have those moments together. We didn't really enjoy qualifying as much as we should have done, when I look back, and so we've got to get that right."

As the group phase nears its end, the tournament pace quickens.

Depending on results, England could play Belgium on Thursday, then face a last-16 tie 900 miles away in Rostov on Monday, before a quarter-final in Kazan on Friday.

Southgate feels the hours spent at Repino are crucial.

"It is (an intense period) but I think you have to switch off and find time," he added.

"I get energy from being on my own actually, so I have to make sure I recognise the moments to just go and find some space, get thinking time, get away.

"Other people get their energy in a group but I think where we are staying, the balance of that is easy to find.

"We've talked about it as a group that managing our energy over a month as a collective is really important because you can keep pushing and pushing and pushing.

"You've got to take moments to relax, unwind.

"The preparation time between games gets shorter and shorter, and yet they're the times where the detail of the preparation will need to get higher."

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph