By Thomas Strong
Last Updated: 27th June 2018
England vs Belgium is fast approaching and former Three Lions manager Sam Allardyce has outlined the battle-plan he’d have hatched for the tricky World Cup Group G fixture.
“There could be the possibility of bringing Gary Cahill in against Belgium, a player who is arguably a better defender than the other three lads. He’d be the best person to deal with Lukaku. Hazard is another problem and it’s hard to mark him out of games so a lot depends on the midfield stopping the service to him.
That’s an important feature of England’s game tactically. They have to nullify the service as much as they can and it’s their responsibility to force Belgium sideways and backwards rather than playing Eden Hazard in.”
As for the players involved, Big Sam favours numerous changes from the line-ups that faced Tunisia and Panama and hopes his successor Gareth Southgate is of the same opinion.
“I think it would be a good idea to play Marcus Rashford and hopefully after the game against Belgium, Gareth will have some headaches for the next game because these players coming in have then played well. The more options and difficult choices he has like that the further England may well go in this competition.”
“If he doesn’t play Marcus now, then it becomes more difficult to put him in later. Right now we’ve got players just training and players maybe going into their third game and if you have to rely on the first group without any game-time they might well fall behind. You can train as often as you can but match sharpness is essential.”
Utilising the full depth of a talented squad certainly has merit when undertaking a – hopefully – long-lasting World Cup campaign but what about the possibility of in-form players losing some momentum if they’re dropped?
“In the last game Lingard was very influential and it’s a huge dilemma when you’re a manager because you’ve got to be strong with your opinions with your staff and pick the best team for each game. But even when players are in form sometimes you need to see if you have other options to call on if you need to.
Don’t wait for an injury and then you’re forced into it. This is almost a free game so put some of those lads on. They’ve already proven themselves with England in the past so let them have a run out.”
With Big Sam going for a completely new-look forward line for Kaliningrad it naturally follows that an awkward chat would be necessary with Harry Kane, who has a Golden Boot in his crosshairs.
How would he tell a hit-man competing with Cristiano Ronaldo and co that he now has one game less to better them?
“I would say to Harry – ‘Look, if you want to be the leading goal-scorer then we need to go as far as we can in the competition and you need to be as fresh as you possibly can. So I’m going to put you on the subs bench for this game and play Jamie Vardy.
Going forward you’ll have plenty more chances to score goals because we know we’re through. And you’ll be fresher. It’s a big demand on the players to play three games at this period of time and especially with the heat and mental pressure on them.”
Even with a second-string attack of Rashford and Vardy, England should have more than enough firepower to trouble a Belgian defence that has so far looked shaky when put under serious pressure.
Having said that, there are many who believe that might not be the wisest strategy with a second place finish in the group looking at present like it could be the safest route to the quarter finals and beyond. It’s a theory that Big Sam does not go along with.
“This has been talked about all the way through and it’s nice that we can talk about coming second in the group. But that happened last time at the Euros and everyone said it was a good thing for England because they ended up playing Iceland. Look what happened there!”
It’s certainly true that no opponents on the international stage can ever be taken for granted – and that England have found this out to their cost in the past – but even so, there must be a last 16 tie, from the choice of three, that Big Sam prefers?
“Japan. I just think Senegal and Colombia have got more quality, dynamism and energy than Japan have.”
Whoever it may be the likelihood is that they’ll be put to the sword because scoring has hardly been a problem for our boys to this point and they go into this week’s clash boasting the joint best goals for record across the tournament.
Does it bother the recent Crystal Palace and Everton gaffer however that six of England’s eight have been dispatched from dead-ball situations?
“England have converted two from open play if you include an own goal which was pretty lucky. Then there was Jesse Lingard’s wonder goal. Going back to Tunisia the finishing in open play wasn’t good enough for a World Cup or an England team so that would concern me. I’d like to see the players who got those gilt-edged chances improve in that department.”
“But on the upside being able to break a team down from set plays is a massive asset. Because as we go on defensively teams will play tighter and tighter and if you can break that down by scoring from a set play then it opens the game up. You score the goal and they have to come out and then you score more goals from open play.”
Listening to the highly experienced coach speak with such conviction it’s easy to imagine this occurring which is a nod to the motivational powers that has seen several teams climb the table under his charge.
After leaving Goodison Park back in May does the 63 year old miss the buzz and chaos that comes from being a manager?
“Not at the moment, no. I’m much relaxed from watching the World Cup and not having the day-to-day situations that come from being a manger, trying to sort out players or dealing with agents.
While you might be on holiday you’re never really on holiday. You might be abroad but you’re constantly communicating via laptop or iPad or phone on a daily basis and that consumes your holiday up.
That’s the same for all managers and even though there is not a lot happening on the transfer market there will certainly be a lot happening behind the scenes.”
Big Sam relaxing conjures up quite an image and begs the question as to what music he booms out when unwinding. Is he a Sade man like so many of his footballing generation? Or perhaps a bit of Rod Stewart before his hits the clubs?
“I would say Queen because they’re my favourite group and I always listen to them when I’m alone in my car driving. Particularly Bohemian Rhapsody.”
While the rest of us sweat on a win or draw this Thursday Big Sam is easy come, easy go, anyway the wind blows. Right now Belgium is real life, the rest is just fantasy.