Gareth Southgate claimed it would have been “ridiculous” to risk Harry Kane and chase a leveller against Belgium as the England manager defended his decision to put preparations for the World Cup last 16 first.
Colombia await in the first knockout phase in Moscow next Tuesday after Adnan Januzaj’s stunner sealed victory in the battle of the back-ups, with the Three Lions’ first loss in a year meaning they finish second in Group G.
There was a strange feeling around the game as both teams were already assured of progress to the last 16, with talk about the best path to the final compounded by a combined 17 changes.
Southgate ensured every outfield player got a run out in the group stage, but the decision not to bring on Golden Boot leader Kane when chasing the match was striking as a draw would have seen them top the group on fair play.
“Well, with respect, in the Euros I think we were only ahead for a few minutes of any of the games,” Southgate said, referring to Euro 2016. “I think here we’ve played extremely well.
“We’ve played well in the games leading into it and played well in the tournament.
“Tonight we’ve played OK. I don’t think we’ve played poorly at all tonight.
“We know that depending on which players we pick in certain positions, we just have a different profile of threat.
“Maybe we didn’t have as many runners in behind tonight and we didn’t have the link between the lines quite as well, but lots of good individual moments for all of the players and a lot that we can learn from as well.
“So, I think for us it was a really good experience. We don’t like losing, we don’t want to lose matches, but the primary objectives we wanted from the evening we’ve got.
“I think the supporters in the stadium understood that as well.
“The level of support was brilliant throughout and I think they could see we were still pushing until the end but we wanted to do that in a way that… look, if we put Harry on for 10 minutes and somebody whacks him down his ankle, that would be ridiculous.
“So, everybody knows that the most important game is the knockout game.”
Southgate called the Colombia match England’s “biggest game for a decade”, so was comfortable defending himself when asked if he had a responsibility to fans and the tournament to have winning matches as his top priority.
“When you’re a leader and a manager, you have got to make decisions that are right for your group and are right for the primary objective,” the Three Lions boss said.
“Sometimes those decisions will be criticised and I understand that because only one person has to make that decision.
“But as a group of staff we were very clear on what we felt that needed physically, medically, tactically for the benefit of the group.
“We have got 20 outfield players now who have played in a World Cup – that’s hugely important for the feeling in our camp over the next few weeks.
“And, yeah, maybe we could have pushed a bit more by putting other players into the game tonight, but we still created chances, we had one absolutely fantastic chance to tie the game.
“So, I had to balance that. I know in some quarters that will be criticised but I am entirely comfortable with that.
“Sometimes you have got to make decisions for the bigger picture and that’s what I did tonight.”