FORMER Sheffield United and Hull City defender Harry Maguire has backed England manager Gareth Southgate for having the courage to rotate his team against Belgium despite the possible backlash.
With a place in the World Cup’s last 16 already assured after wins over Tunisia and Panama, Southgate made eight changes for the Group G decider, with five-goal captain Harry Kane among those taken out of the starting line-up.
Those who sat out in Kaliningrad not only avoided injury and yellow cards, they also have a better chance of being in peak condition for the knockout stage.
But Southgate’s team selection, and subsequent 1-0 defeat to similarly altered Belgium XI has attracted critics including former captain Alan Shearer.
After finishing second in the pool England will face a Colombia side ranked 16th in the world by FIFA – as opposed to Belgium’s date with 61st-placed Japan – and the buoyant feeling created by the record 6-1 rout of Panama has dissipated somewhat.
Maguire, though, defended Southgate for backing his own convictions.
“He’s a brave manager and he makes big decisions in big times,” the Leicester defender said.
“You can say he is brave, but so is (Belgium manager) Roberto Martinez: he also made a number of changes. I think they were both probably looking at the bigger picture and know that the next game is the biggest one of them all.
“Gareth is a man of great knowledge. He fills you with confidence no matter what decision is made. We all trust him as a group and hopefully it’s the right decision in the long run.
“It’s only a good decision if we go and put in a performance in the next game and qualify for the quarter-finals.”
Maguire came on at half-time to replace John Stones, who raised concerns when he was seen with strapping on his left calf in the dugout.
Stones indicated he was feeling fine as he left the stadium, giving reporters a ‘thumbs up’ when asked, and Maguire said he had always expected to share the workload. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” said Maguire.
“I think it was planned that we would each play part of the game because we both played the full 90 minutes in the last two games.
“Gareth wanted to rotate and make sure everyone got the minutes they needed.”
Midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek was one of the three men retained by Southgate, perhaps surprisingly given he was carrying a caution. One more would have ruled him out against Colombia and the Chelsea man admitted he was keen to stay out of trouble.
“I had that in my head, so I didn’t make any rash challenges,” he said. “I didn’t want to not be available for the next game so I didn’t put anything rash in.
“It was a difficult game for us, our first real test, and we’ll take a lot away from it.”
Sheffield-born Gary Cahill was underwhelmed by the lack of competitive edge on show against Belgium, but cautioned against over-analysing England’s flattest performance to date in Russia.
“It was a slightly bizarre game. Obviously, they made loads of changes, we made loads of changes, but ultimately we both qualified,” he said.
“It was a strange game, no pressure. I don’t think we look too much into this game.”
Southgate, meanwhile, could not have been more impressed by captain Kane’s response to seeing his Golden Boot tilt put on hold, praising the sharpshooter’s collective focus ahead of the World Cup knockout phase.
“I felt the need to sit with him, but he was brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” Southgate said of the striker.
“He totally understood 100 per cent – team first.
“He said, ‘look, I know everyone says I want the Golden Boot – of course it’s something I want to do – but the main thing is getting the team through the first knockout’. He was excellent on that, showed real leadership and understanding of the big picture.”
Kane will come straight back into the side for what Southgate called England’s “biggest match in a decade”.
Should they lose to Colombia, the boss is sure to come under pressure for his eight changes against Belgium as well as his reluctance to bring on his captain and chase the draw that would have seen them top Group G and face Japan.
Asked if he had put himself under pressure by making so many alterations, Southgate said: “Well, maybe I have, maybe I haven’t. That is the least of my concerns. The most important thing for me is the players are in the best physical condition for the game.”