Gary Neville was part of the England coaching staff at Euro 2016, so is well-placed to advise Gareth Southgate on how he should approach the Three Lions’ final World Cup Group G match, against Belgium.
With both sides into the knockout rounds with a game to spare, much of the buildup to the game has been dominated by discussion of rotation amid reports that the Red Devils will make ten changes with second place in the group theoretically a more appealing prospect.
Manchester United legend Neville says he strongly encouraged Roy Hodgson to make full use of his squad out in France two years ago when England made six changes for their Group B match against Slovakia.
In came Nathaniel Clyne, Ryan Bertrand, Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge in place of Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, captain Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane as England sought to keep their squad fresh, hoping for a deep run into the tournament.
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Yet, the Three Lions were going into the match still needing a win to top the group and off the back of a dramatic last-gasp win over bitter rivals Wales in the previous match.
Sturridge’s late winner had ignited the belief of the fans and of a squad who had played exceptionally well against Russia in their opener and kept going well against Chris Coleman’s side.
The changes. designed to prolong freshness long-term, ended up stunting the momentum of Roy Hodgson’s men as the rotated Three Lions lineup laboured to a 0-0 draw that saw them qualify in second place.
Despite that, Neville still recommends that Southgate makes ‘three or four’ changes, to keep his squad fresh and show them that he trusts their ability.
In theory, Neville, one of the shrewdest pundits on the scene, makes a good point and there is little doubt that England have laboured in the latter stages of tournaments gone by.
Yet, when the former United right-back got the opportunity to put his ideas into practice, it resulted in a loss of momentum leading into a theoretically straight-forward last 16 tie against Iceland and we all know what happened next.
Neville admits that people will look back and claim that rotating the squad was the wrong thing to do, but urging Southgate to do similar this time around does not suggest that he agrees with that school of thought.
Of course, there is an argument to suggest that Hodgson’s rotation was not linked to the insipid performance against Iceland, but at the very least, the dour Slovakia experiment should act as a cautionary tale for the Three Lions two years on.
Russia and France are just two of the already-qualified nations who have rotated in their closing group game – while Neville names Les Bleus 1998 vintage as a successful example – and it remains to be seen how successful that ploy will prove to be in 2018.
Neville may of course be proved right; a fresh, rotated England could go deep into the tournament after the Belgium encounter, but Southgate must at least heed the warnings.
England’s current scenario is based around a great deal of hypotheticals, but Slovakia 0-0 England serves as a rare tangible guide to how Southgate should proceed.