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England's Gareth Southgate must resist temptation to change vs. Belgium

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- Now what? Now roll on Belgium. Now roll on the guessing -- and second-guessing -- game.

Two years ago, at Euro 2016, England secured a place in the knockout rounds after their opening two matches, which brought a draw with Russia and a victory over Wales. Then, Roy Hodgson decided to make a raft of changes for the final group game, bringing in Nathaniel Clyne, Ryan Bertrand, Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere, Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge.

The idea was to get games for guys who weren't match fit, while helping to keep a bunch of regulars fresh for the knockout stage. England drew 0-0 with Slovakia and ended up facing Iceland in the round of 16. You may recall how well that one worked out. If you don't, suffice to say that Hodgson was out of a job well before the roving islanders had finished their "Huh!" thunderclaps.

It is not a perfect parallel with the situation in which the current England side finds itself -- for starters, the 2018 version has more momentum -- but there are shades of 2016 in the decisions facing Gareth Southgate ahead of England's final group game vs. Belgium on Thursday.

Both teams have already qualified and every tiebreaker is even except for the fair play table, which sees England marginally ahead because they've received one fewer yellow card. (That tiebreaker sets up the potentially absurd situation, whereby both teams look at possible future opponents in the draw and decide they'd rather finish second, so try to accumulate as many bookings as possible.)

"I think we would want to keep our momentum and keep progressing as a team," Southgate said after Sunday's 6-1 thrashing of Panama. "It's nice that it's going to be a game where we're not up to our necks in terms of pressure."

That suggests no rest or rotation, but wait! In the next breath, he adds: "I'll have decisions to make because the harmony of the group is important to me. There are [players] that did not get a game today that are of equal importance as the ones who played ... some guys have gone a couple of weeks without a match and we may need them later in the tournament. ... Plus, we have to make sure the players who haven't played a part thus far feel valued."

It was classic on-the-one-hand-this- and on-the-other-hand-that stuff, as Southgate acknowledged.

"We'll need to figure it out in the next 36 hours," he said. "What is our priority? Well, the harmony of the group is definitely very high on my list ... I have complete trust in all of the players."

England's manager insisted that potential knockout-round opponents, as well as the possibility of avoiding Brazil or Germany in the quarterfinals, do not come into it. "How do you even begin to figure it out?" he said. After all, getting too clever and trying to "game" the knockout stages has cost managers dearly in the past, especially those who have looked beyond the round of 16.

But before he looked too far ahead, Southgate was positively beaming in the postmatch news conference, and with good reason. Forget the second half -- the match was over at 5-0, if not before -- but in 90 minutes against Tunisia and 45 more vs. Panama, England looked disciplined, confident and effective, and it's not often they've shown all three qualities in the same game.

And that is why he should think long and hard before he's tempted to make wholesale changes in the name of this "harmony of the group" business. England have developed a certain chemistry, evident in the coordinated movements of Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane at one end, but also the back three and the fullbacks at the other. That, as much as momentum, should convince him to keep changes at a minimum against Belgium.

And this isn't just a team that will grow by playing together; it will do so against different types of opposition. As Southgate acknowledged, Panama and what he described as their 6-3-1 set-up presented an entirely "different challenge" compared to the opener against Tunisia. What's more, Belgium offer a different challenge still.

Regardless of whether or not Roberto Martinez makes changes -- he has the same conundrum as Southgate -- England will face a back three for the first time in the tournament, a higher caliber of player -- just look at the Belgium bench if you're not convinced -- and an opponent that is genuinely attack-minded. In other words, it is an opportunity to test a system and grow, ahead of the opponents that might await further along in the knockout rounds.

What's more, this is a team that, historically, has been influenced by the chatter back home, whether from the media or, these days, on social platforms. Right now, everybody in England is on a bandwagon that is rolling along nicely, but even something as minor with Steve Holland's "team sheet," as well as the ensuing debate about whether it's the media's job to help or hinder, shows how quickly things can turn.


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The best thing Southgate can do, then, is ride the guys he has and, if there are changes to be made, they ought to be driven by his medical and conditioning staff. Kieran Trippier appeared to need treatment after coming off vs. Panama so, fine, if he would benefit from a day off, you can go with Trent Alexander-Arnold or, as England did in the second half, send in Danny Rose and bring Ashley Young across to the right.

Meanwhile, if Dele Alli does not recover from the muscular issue that kept him out on Sunday, then no problem, go with Ruben Loftus-Cheek again. Otherwise, keep changes to a minimum. The Panama game was played at a frightfully slow pace for much of the second half; unless the sports science guys tell you someone would definitely benefit by sitting out, there's no need to even consider it.

The main thing is to let this team develop. If everybody is truly as on-message as we are led to believe, then those sitting out will not harm the group. Players understand their roles and they know that getting into a side that is winning and performing well is not a given.

And one of the positive side effects of not having a star-studded squad is that many of the guys on Southgate's bench are also fringe players with their club sides. Therefore, you presumably will not get tantrums from a Rose or a Danny Welbeck or a Gary Cahill when, often, these guys don't even start every week.

The simple truth is that neither we -- nor Southgate -- know how good this England team is. Not after a last-minute winner against Tunisia and a huge victory against Panama. But what we -- and Southgate -- can be pretty sure of is that, one, it's going to be fun to find out, and, two, wholesale changes to the starting XI are not going to help the building process.