Why managing England’s non-playing players at this World Cup is now far harder

Four-and-a-half years ago, England lost their last World Cup group stage match and Gareth Southgate didn’t mind.

After the 1-0 defeat by Belgium in the Russian city of Kaliningrad, Southgate shrugged: “Our main goal today was the medium-term goal.” “We had all the time on the field.”

His opposite number Roberto Martinez was even more blunt: “We’ve made it clear from the beginning that it’s not for us to win at all costs.”

Southgate made eight changes to the game, Martinez nine. Neither manager was particularly motivated by the prospect of winning the game and thus finishing top of the group, but Belgium did both in the end.

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If anyone remembers the match, it’s a minor quibble over whether or not Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois taunted his England counterpart Jordan Pickford after Adnan Januzaj’s winning goal flew past him into the top corner. But the football itself was a non-event, a testimonial or pre-season friendly rather than a decisive World Cup group stage final between two top-rated sides.

Southgate knew he would face criticism for letting go of all his best players. One of the most famous newspaper articles ever written at the time – amid so many rivalries – described it as “the exact opposite of what the World Cup is about” and even claimed that it “never felt right in the context”. this is the essence of the competition, these teams, these fans or the sport”.

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But Southgate didn’t mind, and why would he? It became clear later that his main goal was to manage the team.


He knew from his own experience as a member of former England squads how difficult it was for players in major tournaments who traveled the world but never took the field.

Russia 2018 was his first tournament as England manager and he was determined that all 23 of his players should feel part of the group. After the middle-of-the-table match, which cruised past Panama 6-1, he revealed that bringing in Jamie Ward, Danny Rose and Fabian Delph was all about them because they were valued senior players and he was focused on “keeping our unity”. detachment”.

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So Southgate made those eight changes four days later.

Pickford, John Stones and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were England’s only players from the Panama win. Everyone else rested. The rest of the starting XI against Belgium, if he turns up in the pub quiz soon, is Phil Jones, Gary Cahill, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Eric Dier, Delph, Rose, Marcus Rashford and Vardy.

Alexander-Arnold, left, played in 2018 but has yet to play for Qatar (Photo by Eddie Keogh – FA/Getty Images via FA)

At the end of this game, 20 of England’s 23-man teams competed in the World Cup. Of the remaining three, Danny Welbeck was a late substitute against Belgium. Only two players didn’t see a single minute of action: Jack Butland and Nick Pope, backup goalkeepers who always went into any tournament expecting fewer minutes than their outfield counterparts.

The criticism didn’t matter to Southgate.

“You sometimes have to look at the bigger picture and make decisions that may be criticized,” he said. “But everyone understands – in the dressing room and in the group – what we’re trying to do.”

When this reporter told Southgate that he had a duty to the tournament and the fans, Southgate reiterated that he had his own goals. “When you’re a leader and a manager, you have to make decisions that are right for your group and your ultimate goal,” he said. “We have 20 outfield players who have played in the World Cup. It is very beneficial for the feeling in our camp.

Four years and five months later, Southgate is heading into the third match of another World Cup campaign.

The last time he scored six points, he secured the last 16th place. Now he has only four.

England are highly unlikely to be knocked out on Tuesday night. They must lose 4-0 or more to go through with the winner of Wales vs United States vs Iran. A 3-0 defeat for Wales, or less, means England will still qualify for the play-offs.

Still, it seems unlikely that Southgate will do exactly what he did last time, with the game still nominally live. (And Wales, as disappointing as they were in their first two games, won’t be as easy as Belgium in 2018.)

There are is Players he may be tempted to bring in: Kyle Walker has yet to play in the tournament as he is coming back from injury and could see little game time before the knockouts. Jordan Henderson could add more experience in midfield if Jude Bellingham is rested (as Southgate warned after Friday’s goalless draw with the USA).

There is a lot of public pressure to play Phil Foden or Jack Grealish instead of Raheem Sterling or Bukayo Saka. But if you predict how many changes Southgate will make for this game, you’ll be going for three or four at the most in 2018, not eight.

But let’s say Southgate makes three changes and brings in Walker, Henderson and Foden for the sake of argument. That leaves him with the team management problem he tried so hard to solve last time.

As Southgate kept one squad for the Iran and USA games, he started just 11 players and used six more from the bench. Had he started Walker, Henderson and Foden against Wales, he would have started 14 out of 26, which is slightly better. But remember that in 2018, after the group stage, he started 20 and gave up to 21 minutes.

This time around, that’s almost impossible, and it’s made more difficult by the fact that Southgate has allowed Qatar to bring 26 players instead of 23. So even if he starts three more times and now has 14 players, he would still have 12 players. The game did not start. Although he could use five substitutions per match, he would still have plenty of players yet to take the field.

Nine of England’s 26 players had yet to see a minute of action here on Monday morning.

There are two backup goaltenders, Pope and Aaron Ramsdale, who might not wait a minute while they’re here. But then there are seven outfield players: Walker, Conor Coady, Ben White, Alexander-Arnold, Calvin Phillips, Conor Gallagher and James Maddison.

With Walker back in contention when fit, Gallagher and Maddison could be game-changing players, but it’s a little harder to see how Coady, White, Phillips or even Alexander-Arnold could play.

Maybe that will change – there are always injuries or suspensions or changes in form. But perhaps when England fly home at some point in December, they will be working with fewer players here than in 2018, who have never kicked the ball in anger.

This is not an easy situation for any player to handle with patience and grace.

Southgate described the World Cup as a “tournament of outside noise” after the USA game and it’s clear the whole group wants to stop talking about politics and focus on football now. The challenge for Southgate is that if he relies on a small core of players and another handful on the bench, this shouldn’t be a tournament of internal buzz for England either.

Unused players in the World Cup

The country Players have not played yet

South korea
















































Costa Rica












Saudi Arabia




Valid until November 27th



You were afraid to ask every question of the World Cup

(Top photo: Simon Stackpool/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)


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