Way back in February, before the Summer of Football was even being discussed, England coach Gareth Southgate took some time out of his schedule to fly out to America. The reason? To look at the way in which the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots prepare for the biggest game of their lives, Super Bowl 52. Inspiration from this trip across the pond could be seen in England’s thunderous win over Panama.
“One of the reasons some of our guys have travelled is to see how the NFL operate because we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done, we can try different things that work,” Southgate told Sky Sports.
“I think sometimes around major tournaments the relationships between our guys and the media has been a bit confrontational and I don’t think it has to be that way. So this [Super Bowl] seems very open, a lot more relaxed, there seems to be a lot more respect between people.
“If you keep always doing what you’ve always done you get the same results.”
England finally have a system. The team play fluidly and look to exploit the opposition with long balls, whipped crosses and lengthy throw-ins, emulating some of those illustrious NFL-like plays. That was never clearer than in the win against Panama.
Jordan Henderson rallied the troops together before a free kick, setting up a beautifully crafted set piece that would send England further into the lead. This was extremely reminiscent of the ‘Philly special’. A player deciding how the play is going to unfold while the rest of the team do their jobs perfectly, ending in a huge goal for the team.
Straight from the training ground!
England executes beautifully on a free kick that ends in John Stones getting his second of the day. pic.twitter.com/ggYj22x06n
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 24, 2018
One game later and England faced a very different scenario. A stiff challenge against Belgium didn’t really mean much to the Lions. A win meant they would face a tougher road to the Final, while anything less would mean a slightly easier route that led deeper into the knockouts.
Southgate made eight changes to the team that humbled Panama, leaving very few starters on the pitch. At half-time, the game was still well up for grabs. Chances came and went for both sides, with some sitters for England simply passing them by. It would be Adnan Januzaj who scorched a shot into the top corner deep into the second half, sending Belgium ahead.
How did Southgate react?
That’s what seems to be eating up England fans the most. Many across the nation actually wanted the team to take a poor result in order to have a bigger chance at success in this tournament and the result itself isn’t what’s dividing the nation, it’s how it was attained.
When Belgium went 1-0 up, they brought on talented playmaker, Dries Mertens. When England went 1-0 down, the brought on Danny Welbeck. Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and even players such as Trippier sat on the sidelines watching on as their team played toothlessly against Belgium. And now, Southgate learns his second lesson from the NFL, accountability.
Much has been said of Doug Pederson and the Philadelphia Eagles and how his focus on being accountable has helped elevate the team. The locker room following this loss will undoubtedly carry mixed emotions and its down to the gaffer to resonate with his team, expressing that the decision to rest so many is on him. The gameplan is on him and they leave this game behind.
If Southgate is unable to get everybody on an understanding level, with some looking back with frustration, it could cause major problems moving forward. Sending out a team to do anything but win seems alien as someone that studies every intricacy of the NFL. As players, they’ll want to win a knockout game for the first time in 12 years. They’ll want the stiffer competition, to make the statement, to dominate. It must have been utterly frustrating to see such a conservative gameplan that almost embodies an inferiority complex.
The truth is, there is no ‘easy route’ to a World Cup final. Unlike the NBA, it’s a one-game series. Resting players doesn’t matter in Basketball, where you can have LeBron firing on all cylinders 2 games later. In Football, where momentum and confidence is everything, where any team can cause an upset (Cc: Iceland and South Korea), there is no easy route and every team needs to be respected. Holding back the horses to avoid playing a bigger team in many ways can show fear….and in others, smarts.
The result of the game isn’t a problem. England avoid Uraguay, Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Portugal and France by losing…but it’s the way in which they lost. The food they left on the table and the way in which 90 minutes, any sense of momentum, confidence and swagger was violently shattered in front of the nation’s eyes.
We will now see the type of manager that Southgate really is. England haven’t exactly defeated major opposition and their first real test saw scrappy play from a team of reserves who staked no major claim to earn a starting role in Tuesday’s game against Colombia.
If Southgate is unable to rally the team and get them mentally prepared for a fixture against a hungry and underwhelming Colombian side, the fall will hit that much harder than if they’d gone out swinging to Brazil. If they are unable to advance to the next stage because of the fractures planted today, the nation may never forgive Gareth Southgate. But if he CAN get the team on the same page and prove this was the right decision, pushing England to their first World Cup final of mine and the lifetime of many others, he may become a legend. The fate of England rests on the edge of a knife…but how deep is Southgate willing to plunge?
Photo credit: AP Photo/Alastair Grant