There was a touch of irony about the way Germany were knocked out of the World Cup as Gareth Southgate simultaneously addressed the world knowing England are already through to the last 16, regardless of the result against Belgium.
A slightly bizarre start to media duties at the Kaliningrad Stadium entailed, where Southgate delayed entering the room as long as possible watching Germany versus South Korea on a screen in the corridor outside, and then everyone had half an eye on social media or muted live streams for the first five minutes, until Germany’s exit was confirmed. But then this is a slightly bizarre scenario for all involved: where finishing second in Group G could offer a more favourable run to the semi-finals.
Southgate was entirely deadpan as, responding to the first question a few minutes after Kim Young-gwon and Son Heung-min scored the goals to knock Germany out, he said: “In this tournament they’ve been ahead for a minute-and-a-half of their three matches. It’s been unusual to see them struggle as much as they have.” Still can’t resist a little dig at the old enemy, and as he turned to Eric Dier, sat alongside him, to tell him the news in a break between questions, the pair laughed.
What it highlighted, in bright lights, was the fallibility of playing for second place which, until late yesterday, was expected to mean a quarter-final meeting with Germany or Brazil. “We’ve not won a knockout game since 2006, why we are starting to plot which would be a better venue for our semi-final is beyond me, really,” Southgate said, bemused by the idea.
While every other group in the World Cup has come down to nail-shredding final matches, Group G is concluding with a kickabout between B-teams. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez is also set to make major changes and admitted that finishing top was not a priority.
How does Southgate play this one, then? It is a question that has nagged at the England manager this week. He gets energised when he is alone and uses the time to mull things over. Usually, that is on a run, but after dislocating his shoulder in Repino during a day off last week, Southgate has spent time gathering his thoughts on a Wattbike, instead.
Does he rest Harry Kane, or unleash his captain and the tournament’s top scorer? Does he make wholesale changes and keep the squad engaged, or maintain continuity with his firing first-team players?
Southgate did not get off the bench during the 2002 World Cup, and has spoken about how, while he clearly wished his team-mates well, ultimately it is not an enjoyable experience for those not involved. So that has come into his thinking and Southgate, it is understood, has been chopping and changing with potential line-ups in training this week, since the thumping win against Panama on Sunday. Eight are expected, with Kane keeping his place to lead them. If the match is a draw, with the two countries already level on points, goals scored and goals conceded, it will come down to fair play. England are currently on two yellows, Belgium three. But the prospect of trying to pick up some sneaky yellow cards, a move which backfired quite spectacularly for David Beckham in a 2004 World Cup qualifier, has not even been broached with the squad, Southgate said.
“If I go and head-butt Roberto in the last five minutes then you’ll know we’re taking a different approach to getting through,” he added, laughing. “We’re always talking to our players about discipline on the pitch, avoiding needless free-kicks. You want to have players available for the future, so you have to avoid yellow cards.
“We want to win the game. That would mean we top the group and can move forward. I go back to the fact we’re trying to develop a winning mentality. I can’t imagine a situation where I talk to the players about anything else. It wouldn’t be authentic for what we’ve been trying to build for the last two years.”
Southgate has been clear in his intention to let the players loose socially, to do their own thing, to treat them as responsible adults and let that permeate on to the pitch on match-days. He has tested that philosophy to its limits, locating them in Kaliningrad’s Radisson hotel, over the road from the Maxim strip club and right in the centre of town. A stark change from their quiet, sleepy Repino base.
“That’s normally one of the stories that’s always written about every hotel we stay at, there’s always something close-by to distract us,” Southgate said. “But there’ll be more energy around the hotel, and that prepares you well. We’re looking forward to the atmosphere [at the game]. Two teams very keen to play well and win. The level of the game will be high, even with changes.”