Gareth Southgate: Should England manager make changes?

By Phil McNultyChief football writer in Repino, Russia
Trent Alexander-Arnold making his debut against Costa Rica
Liverpool youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold made his debut for England in the final warm-up match against Costa Rica and could be handed a start against Belgium
England v Belgium
Venue: Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad Date: Thursday, 28 June Kick-off: 19:00 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 live, live text commentary online, mobile, BBC Sport app and Connected TV; highlights online at full time

England confirmed their place in the World Cup last 16 with the emphatic 6-1 win over Panama in Nizhny Novgorod - and will be joined by Belgium from Group G.

The two sides meet in the final group game in Kaliningrad on Thursday to decide who will top the table, with the result mapping out their subsequent routes through Russia.

It is not a dead rubber - but will England manager Gareth Southgate be tempted to make wholesale changes after opening the World Cup campaign with wins against Tunisia and Panama?

Should Gareth Southgate stick?

Gareth Southgate (centre), Marcus Rashford (left) and Harry Maguire (right)
Striker Marcus Rashford (left) is one option for Southgate against Belgium

There is an unquestionable temptation to rotate an England team that has played two games in searing heat in Volgograd and Nizhny Novogorod and has also picked up knocks along the way.

England, however, are picking up momentum and confidence from those two opening victories so Southgate might risk disturbing those key elements should he shuffle his pack.

And momentum is a key factor in tournament football. History is littered with teams who have picked up momentum continuously throughout World Cups and Euros and charted a path to glory.

England also have a rhythm about their play that should only increase with selection consistency. These players are at home with each other and important details like England's set-pieces, such a rich source so far here in Russia, are superbly grooved.

The biggest decision Southgate may have to make is over Harry Kane, who has emerged as England's most significant figure, an inspirational captain who is currently the tournament's leading goalscorer with five goals.

Kane is England's talisman and he is highly unlikely to want to sit out the game with Belgium given its importance and also his desire, stated openly with great confidence before the game with Tunisia, to claim the Golden Boot as the World Cup's top marksman.

He also only played 63 minutes against Panama in the taxing temperatures, removed and replaced by Jamie Vardy after completing his hat-trick, so it is highly unlikely Kane will be jaded or feeling the pace.

Harry Kane currently tops the goalscoring charts - above Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku
Harry Kane became only the third England player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup match after Geoff Hurst (1966) and Gary Lineker (1986) when he netted three against Panama

The other factor in the equation is the next step on the road to Moscow in this World Cup - with some discussing whether England might be better off finishing second in some sort of bizarre race to the bottom against an under-strength Belgium.

If England draw in Kaliningrad, the table-toppers will be decided by the countries' respective disciplinary record, with Belgium on three yellow cards compared to the Three Lions' two. If this is level lots will be drawn.

If Brazil win their group, and Germany finish second in Group F, they will meet in the last 16 - the winners would then face England if Southgate's team win both their group and their last 16 tie. Finish second and the likes of Switzerland and Mexico come into the equation.

England's catastrophe under then manager Roy Hodgson at Euro 2016 will still be fresh in the memory. One of the big turning points in France was his inexplicable decision to make six changes for the final group game against Slovakia - England's failure to win meant Wales topped the group and went on to the semi-finals.

If Southgate sticks, he is putting down a marker that England mean business and there will be no slackening of the pace. It will send out the strongest message that he believes this is an England team for all occasions.

And there is room for Southgate to make sensible changes rather than wholesale alterations and still field a strong England side.

And this is why "stick" is surely Southgate's best option.

Should Southgate twist?

Gareth Southgate pictured during England training
Southgate's side will take top spot in Group G with victory over Belgium

England's squad has plenty of talent that has yet to be used and game time might be vital for each member of the squad as the World Cup progresses.

Southgate has stressed how keen he is to keep all squad members involved and spirits will certainly be lifted by giving players on the margins an even bigger feel of the World Cup environment by rewarding them a starting place.

For all the talk of England's great unity within the squad, and this is definitely the case, there is no doubt playing actual matches is what they are here for. Every player wants more than the role of cheerleader and will be desperate to grab any chance they can, perhaps even staking a claim for the later stages.

Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold has shown superb temperament and it makes sense for him to replace the outstanding Kieran Tripper, who had his thigh strapped after he was substituted against Panama.

Trippier has been a real success story out here and he will be vital in the knockout stages. No risks there.

Eric Dier may also be needed as a second midfield pivot alongside Jordan Henderson against better opposition so Southgate might welcome the chance to play him in. Gary Cahill would represent little risk of weakening the side in central defence while Danny Welbeck has proved he can score goals at England level - even if he does not pose the same threat as Kane.

And while Kane will want to be in from the start with his form so good and his ambition so high, there is a real temptation for Southgate to want to keep some gas in the tank.

Ashley Young, at 32, has a strength-sapping role as wing-back on the left side so it might be prudent to rest tired legs there and give Danny Rose, who had a truncated season at Tottenham, valuable game time.

Southgate will also have the long game in the back of his mind so will be considering the dangers of over-exertion, even if every player will be desperate to play every game they can.

It is a very delicate balance and one Southgate will have weighed up with his trusted England backroom team before deciding which way to go.

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