World Cup '“ Leon Wobschall: England must retain impetus to be ready for knock-out stages

TODAY marks the 25th anniversary of the memorial service at Westminster Abbey for the late, great Bobby Moore '“ that most venerated of England captains whose uncanny ability to sense footballing danger preceded him.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 28th June 2018, 7:05 am
FORGETTABLE: England's players sink to their knees as Iceland's players celebrate a memorable win at Euro 2016. Picture:  Jonathan Brady/PA
FORGETTABLE: England's players sink to their knees as Iceland's players celebrate a memorable win at Euro 2016. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA

Moore’s intuitive reading of play was incomparable. It once drew another great, inspirational football figure – in the shape of Scottish managerial giant Jock Stein – to famously comment: “There should be a law against him. He knows what is happening 20 minutes before anybody else.”

Moore was an attentive figure who was always in control of his emotions too. Who can forget the image of him carefully wiping the sweat from his palms before the World Cup presentation was made on that heady day of July 30, 1966?

Amid the sense of well-being following the current England team’s eye-catching qualification for the knock-out phases of a competition which has proved thoroughly beguiling thus far, the need to retain a heightened sense of awareness and rationality – as the immaculate Moore always did – is imperative.

The impression is that some of the country’s more presumptuous supporters are looking much further down the line than this evening’s final Group G game against Belgium and by-passing the significance of tonight’s events in Kaliningrad, with both sides safely through to the last 16.

The unmistakable whiff of quarter-final talk has been pungent in the pre-match conjecture among many too.

It is a viewpoint which conveniently forgets that a knock-out last-16 game must also be negotiated with England having not exactly proved proficient at winning those over the years.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

England manager Gareth Southgate with, left, assistant Steve Holland and striker coach Allan Russell, right, during a training session at Spartak Zelenogorsk Stadium on Wednesday. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

All told, England have won just six knock-out games at major tournaments since Moore lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy just under 52 years ago.

It is a thoroughly lamentable record and denotes instant caution. If ever there was a time for England not to get ahead of themselves, then it is surely now.

Thankfully, in those same traditions of Moore, Southgate is showing signs of being fully alert to the perils of complacency and avoiding unnecessary distractions and keeping calm too.

As with his astute utterances throughout an accomplished tournament thus far, Southgate’s assertion that his players must not “waste any energy” in trying to work out what might lie ahead if they finish first or second in their group is a pertinent one.

WOE IS ME: Roy Hodgson stepped down as England manager after a shock 2-1 defeat to Iceland saw them crash out of Euro 2016. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

England’s average squad age is 25.6 – only Nigeria (25.4) had a younger squad age coming into the competition – and they are plainly learning on the job at tournament level with confidence being a precious commodity as Southgate knows only too well.

Within that, this evening’s game represents another important building block.

For relatively greenhorn teams such as England, the momentum rule is surely the most important one with the benefits of a positive result and performance against the Belgians being the key objective of the exercise this evening.

It would be careless if England did not take something of value into their second-round appointment early next week as they seek to win only their second knock-out game in 15 years.

They are far from at the conditioned level of the likes of Spain, a team who can be safe in the knowledge that they have players who have seen it, done it and worn the T-shirt at the sharp end of tournaments and are acclimatised in the peaks and troughs of tournament football.

The Spanish, for instance, have five starting players in their ranks in Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, who were all part of the side who lost their opening group game at the 2010 World Cup and went on to help their nation win the competition.

Amid the fall-out of England’s catastrophic last knock-out match against Iceland almost exactly two years ago at Euro 2016, it was not lost upon the more shrewd observers that impetus was surrendered in their final group game in France.

That saw England register a frustrating 0-0 draw with Slovakia in Saint-Etienne when Roy Hodgson’s decision to make six changes to a side who had previously snatched a last-minute ‘derby’ win against Wales backfired and fatefully had more damaging consequences down the line against the Icelandics in Nice.

Southgate is likely to be pragmatic in his changes tonight, mindful that competing against an admittedly much-changed Belgian side will be a step up from facing two of the tournament minnows in Panama and Tunisia.

A perceptive man, expect Southgate to heed the mistakes of Hodgson.

He has not got much wrong so far.