Gareth Southgate has a huge decision against Germany – and it’s one that so many England managers have got wrong in recent years.
He must decide whether to put in the two players who were injured coming into the tournament, and his career as a manager could be defined by it.
I know quite a bit about the subject. I reckon I was only fit for one of the tournaments I ever went to, and that was the first: Euro 96.
I missed the 1998 World Cup completely with a cruciate ligament injury, and that probably informed my decisions in 2000 and 2002, when I was struggling with injuries going into the tournament.
I was desperate to play, even if I wasn’t right. You go thinking you may get better as the tournament progresses, that you’ll come into fitness. Which is what Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson will believe.
But it doesn’t always work. England managers have gambled so often in the past and it didn’t work. Important players David Beckham, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney all went into tournaments with injuries, and the gamble didn’t pay off.
Ironically, in 2002, Michael wasn’t right in the quarter final against Brazil, and I thought Sven Goran Erkisson got it wrong in not putting me on, when we were losing in the second half against 10 men.
In 2006 Michael went to the World Cup when he had played only one game all year and Eriksen got that decision woefully wrong again, because he only made one appearance before getting a bad injury.
It was the same with Beckham in 2002 and Rooney in 2006 as well. None of them were right in the tournaments, and in the end you could argue it cost the manager. They look right, they can get through games, but that top level is blunted. And that’s the part that makes the difference.
I think Eriksson made the safe decisions in taking those big players, it’s a natural decision really. But it’s also a call that defines your career.
We look back now and think Sven was a decent organised manager, but he blew the golden generation of English football. He was a failure.
Look at the players we had through that period, Scholes, Beckham, McManaman, Owen, Rooney, Ferdinand, me (I’ve got to put myself in there haven’t I?!) Lampard, Gerrard. So many more.
We played against 10-man Brazil in the quarter final, and had everyone been at the peak of their game, we should have won. So he got it wrong, and his career is tarnished. He could have been a legend, but he’s just ‘a decent manager’.
So what does Gareth do? This is his Sven moment. This is where the top managers, the real elite, make the right call. It’s about using every single piece of information at your disposal, and getting it right.
At least he’s not thrown them in from the start, and that has given them the chance to ease back to the pace of the game. That could help immensely.
Both Henderson and Maguire looked good against the Czechs, but you only really find whether you’re up the intensity in the biggest games, and they won’t come much bigger than Germany.
You can’t gamble. Both will be recovered from injury, but that’s so different to being completely match fit, especially at the highest level.
Of course the players will be desperate to appear, they’ll be saying they were ready. I did. I believed it. I believe it now! I’m sure Michael did, I’m sure Beckham and Rooney did.
But this is where sports science has moved on, and must come into it. The sports fitness experts can run the numbers and tell. They have to do their job and give the manager the information he needs. Then he has to make that value judgement.
It’s a huge call, because you need their experience. Both players have been there in these huge games, they know all about the pressure and the intensity, and that is so valuable.
But it’s not any use if they are half a yard short. If they are – in the key positions they fill -England will lose, it’s as simple as that.
I’ve seen it happen at tournaments. I’ve seen the very best players I have ever played with go into intense matches just a fraction short, and get found out. Honestly, it’s brutal.
Opponents know it instantly. They can sense where a player lacks that top one or two per cent which makes them elite. They exploit it. There’s no hiding place in those games, you can’t expect the other players to get you through. You get found out.
So those are the stakes. The manager has one of the biggest calls of his career. Get it right and Gareth Southgate still has the chance to define his England management in legendary terms.
Get it wrong and, well, he’s just a poor man’s Sven Goran Eriksson.