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 game and Gareth Southgate didn’t mind.

“Our main objective today was medium-term,” shrugged Southgate after the 1-0 defeat by Belgium in the Russian city of Kaliningrad. “We have time for everyone on the field.”

His opponent Roberto Martinez was even more blunt: “From the beginning we were very clear that winning at all costs was not the case for us.”

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

If anyone remembers anything about the game, it’s the mini-controversy over whether or not Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois taunted his England counterpart Jordan Pickford after Adnan Januzaj’s winning goal flew over his outstretched arm and into the top corner. But the football itself was a non-event, played with the casual feel of kicking off a pre-season friendly rather than a decisive World Cup group-stage final between two nominally top sides.

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Southgate knew he would be criticized for leaving out all his best players. One of the most pompous newspaper articles written at the time – amid much competition – described it as “the exact opposite of what the World Cup should be” and even claimed that it “can never feel right in the context of this competition, these teams, these fans or the essence of the sport”.

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But Southgate didn’t mind, and why would he? After that, it was clear that his main goal was the management of the team.

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He knew from his own experience as a member of previous England teams how difficult it is for those players at major tournaments who travel the world but never take the field.

Russia 2018 was his first tournament as England manager and he was determined that all 23 of his players should feel active, included in the squad. After the middle group game, the 6-1 win past Panama, he revealed that bringing in Jamie Vardy, Danny Rose and Fabian Delph was all about it because they were valued senior players and he was looking “to keep the unity of the squad”.

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With that in mind, Southgate made those eight changes four days later.

The only players England were left with after the win in Panama were Pickford, John Stones and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Everyone else had rested. The rest of the starting 11 against Belgium, in the event of a pub quiz soon, was made up of Phil Jones, Gary Cahill, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Eric Dier, Delph, Rose, Marcus Rashford and Vardy.


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

By the end of this match, 20 of England’s 23-man squad had started a World Cup match. Of the other three, Danny Welbeck came on as a late substitute against Belgium. Only two players had not seen a single minute of action: Jack Butland and Nick Pope, backup goalkeepers who would always go into any tournament with fewer minutes expected than their outfield counterparts.

The criticism didn’t matter to Southgate.

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

When this reporter told Southgate that he owed a duty to the tournament and the fans, a responsibility he had neglected, 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 the bottom line,” he said. “We have 20 outfield players who have played in the World Cup. It is extremely helpful for the feeling in our camp.”

Four years and five months later, Southgate enters the third game of another World Cup campaign.

Last time out, he already had six points and a place in the last 16 secured. Now he has only four.

However, it is extremely unlikely that England will be knocked out on Tuesday night. They would need to lose 4-0 or more, which would see opponents Wales and any USA winner against Iran go through. 3-0 to Wales or any defeat by less than that and England will still be through to the knockout stages.

And yet it still seems unlikely that Southgate will do exactly what he did last time out while the game is still nominally live. (And Wales, as disappointing as they were in their first two games, won’t concede the way Belgium did in 2018.)

There are players he will be tempted to bring in: Kyle Walker is yet to play in the tournament as he returns from injury and could take some time before the knockouts. Jordan Henderson could add more midfield experience if Jude Bellingham is rested (which Southgate hinted he would do after Friday’s goalless draw with the USA).

There is huge public pressure to play Phil Foden or Jack Grealish instead of Raheem Sterling or Bukayo Saka. But if you had to guess how many changes Southgate will make for this game, you’d probably go with three, or maybe four at the most, rather than the eight he made in 2018.

But let’s say Southgate made three changes and brought on, for argument’s sake, Walker, Henderson and Foden. That would leave him with the team management problem he worked so hard to solve last time.

As Southgate kept the same squad for the Iran and USA games, he started just 11 players and used another six from the bench. If he started Walker, Henderson and Foden against Wales then he would have started 14 of his 26, which is slightly better. But remember, after the group stage in 2018, he had started with 20 and given minutes up to 21.

That’s almost impossible this time around, and is compounded by the fact that Southgate was allowed to bring 26 players to Qatar, not 23. So even if he’d made three more starts and now had 14 starters, he’d still have 12 players , who had not started a game. And even though he could take advantage of the five-substitution-per-game rule, he would still have plenty of players not on the field.

As of Monday morning, nine of England’s 26 players have not seen a minute of action here.

There are two backup goaltenders, Pope and Aaron Ramsdale, who may not expect to get a minute while they are here. But there are seven outfield players: Walker, Connor Coady, Ben White, Alexander-Arnold, Calvin Phillips, Connor Gallagher and James Maddison.

While Walker will be back in the running when he’s fit, and Gallagher and Maddison could be game-changing replacements, it’s a bit harder to see how Cody, White, Phillips or even Alexander-Arnold can manage.

Maybe that will change – there can always be injuries or suspensions or formation changes. But it’s probably more likely than not that when England go home at some point in December, they will do with a few players – more than in 2018 – who have never kicked the ball in anger here.

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

Southgate described this World Cup as a “tournament of outside noise” after the USA game and it’s clear the whole group wants to move on from talking politics and focus on football now. The challenge for Southgate, if he relies on the same small core of players and another handful remain on the bench, is not to make this a tournament of internal noise for England as well.

Unused World Cup players

Country Players yet to play

South Korea

12

Cameroon

11

Poland

11

Uruguay

11

Brazil

10

Croatia

10

Ecuador

10

Ghana

10

Portugal

10

Serbia

10

Switzerland

10

Canada

9

England

9

The Netherlands

9

Qatar

9

Spain

9

Tunisia

9

Wales

9

France

8

Morocco

8

USA

8

Argentina

7

Australia

7

Belgium

7

Costa Rica

7

Denmark

7

Germany

7

Mexico

7

Senegal

7

Iran

6

Saudi Arabia

6

Japan

5

Correct by November 27

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



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