England will go into their final group game with their qualification for the next round already assured. Thursday’s game against Group G’s top seed Belgium will now be one to determine who will take the top spot. The game will offer the unusual opportunity for the Three Lions to rotate their first 11, giving some weary limbs a day off and a chance to bring in some fresh legs.
There’s even a suggestion floating around that it may actually be better to finish second in the group.
With the unexpected early results from Brazil and Germany, a number of optimists are penning England’s possible route through the knockout stages. Realizing that finishing second could result in avoiding both of those World Cup giants, and instead it could land a likely quarter final showdown with Switzerland or Mexico.
However, there are a few glaring factors that would suggest that trying to lose against Belgium may spell danger for this freewheeling English team.
Perhaps first among them is the fact that there is no such thing as a guaranteed victory in World Cup football. To assume England will have enough to stroll past whatever last 16 opponent they face is to forget the troubled history England have had in the knockout stages of major tournaments. So bad is their record that their last Round of 16 victory came 16 years and 4 tournaments ago in 2002.
Simply put, those who believe England should favor a half of the draw that avoids the big guns are overlooking the fact that to reach that stage means beating some of the smaller guns. Not something England have been adept at in recent years (remember Iceland, anyone?).
Coming second in the group could land them a Round of 16 game against Colombia who, despite their opening defeat to Japan, showed against Poland their fine potential form. Colombia are not a team to be taken lightly and on previous World Cup form could arguably be favorites against England.
Soccer, like the majority of sports, can be a confidence game. The best way to retain confidence is simply by winning football matches. An even greater boost can be achieved when those football matches are won against a team that is seen as better than yours — a label Belgium hold over England at the moment.
To effectively ‘throw’ a game is a risky move that could have the adverse effect of diminishing the enviable team spirit already built up within this young squad.
It’s been stated before but it’s worth mentioning again to put into this context. England have a heavily inexperienced squad. The most inexperienced squad in the whole competition, in fact. Behind Kyle Walker, the back line is comprised of John Stones with 28 caps, Harry Maguire with 7 caps and Jordan Pickford with 5. Arguably their best player so far, Kieran Trippier, only has 9 to his name.
The team’s time on the pitch together is still in its infancy. These are players still figuring out how each other plays. Building up relationships and an understanding that can only come from minutes on the pitch. So to disrupt that just when they seem to be figuring it out risks more than three points in the long run.
There is also a favorite English pastime to consider of course. To deprive the nation of imagining ‘what could’ve been’ had something not been different is surely the cruelest thing Gareth Southgate and the team could truly inflict on the country.