FIFA World Cup 2018: Fumbling forwards, bungling defence highlight England's tame loss to Belgium

In a game that had the look and feel of a friendly match, Belgium edged out England courtesy an Adnan Januzaj goal in what was effectively a Belgium ‘B’ versus England ‘B’ fixture in Kaliningrad. Both teams rang in changes in a low-stakes match given the status of progression from the group, but after the events in the Japan group, the fixtures offered plenty in terms of an elementary course in game theory.

Belgium's Adnan Januzaj prepares to score against England on Thursday. AFP

Belgium's Adnan Januzaj prepares to score against England on Thursday. AFP

Now that their opponents and the draw in the knockout stages were known, what should be a priority for England? Is it better to finish first and face Japan, arguably an easier proposition, or finish second and face Colombia? Is it better to think of avoiding Brazil in the quarters (and the tougher half of the draw) while there might be a greater chance of getting knocked out in the Round of 16?

This sort of thing has happened earlier, by the way; this is typical, presumptuous England. Is checking out squad depth and giving a run out to the entire team in stress-free circumstances a reliable dipstick for tougher contests ahead? Would squad morale be better if more team members played or would it be better if they won every match? Is continuity more important than testing tactical flexibility? In the end, England manager Gareth Southgate chose to rest many of his important players (so did Roberto Martinez). Perhaps he had an eye on second place.

Jordan Pickford retained his spot in between the sticks, behind a backline of Phil Jones, John Stones and Gary Cahill. Eric Dier, Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph played in the heart of the midfield, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Danny Rose providing width as wing-backs. Upfront, Jamie Vardy partnered Marcus Rashford. The former Wigan Athlectic and Everton manager (and the present Belgium boss) Roberto Martinez would have been proud of England’s devotion to three at the back, a tactic that Martinez was partial to.

When England started the match, they were on top of the Group G standings — they had the same number of points, goal difference, goals scored as Belgium. The only differentiator at kick-off, like the rule that propelled Japan into the knockouts, was the disciplinary record; England had accrued fewer yellow cards than Belgium. Had Januzaj not scored, it would have been interesting to see England’s commitment to second place; English players (and Belgium following suit) getting desperate yellow cards for time-wasting, fouling and deliberate handballs would have been a classic World cup farce for the ages. In the end, a solitary goal from the former (Manchester United) and present (Belgium) Red Devil Adnan Januzaj was enough to put England in their desired half of the draw.

Thorgan Hazard showed signs of rustiness two minutes after kick-off after he played a blind pass to the left side of the Belgian defence. Instead, Jamie Vardy raced ahead of his marker and crossed the ball to Rashford, who was beaten to it by an alert Courtois. Four minutes later, a Tielemans dipping long-ranger warmed Pickford’s gloves at the other end. Tielemans picked up the ball on the right side, and surprised England by shooting from distance; the England keeper was equal to the task. In the ninth minute, Belgium went closer to opening the scoring. Januzaj dragged Rose around right-sided edge of the penalty box and crossed a ball to Marouane Fellaini, who put the ball right in the danger zone. Michy Batshuayi seemed to have pounced first and poked the ball home, but the ensuing melee of England players somehow kept the ball out, Gary Cahill reacting in the nick of time with a clearance off the line.

For long periods of the match, a sterile England huffed and puffed with no visible end product. Their best chances in the first half came off corners — headers from Cahill and Loftus-Cheek. Close to the end of the first half, Ruben Loftus-Cheek put in a curling, inviting cross from the right of midfield. Fabian Delph made a run to complete the move, but Dedryck Boyata cleared the danger. All this was reminiscent of the laborious, superstar-laden team that, according to the English press in previous World Cups, were supposedly world beaters.

At the other end too, England kept Belgium out, and Fellaini’s shot was the only attempt of note after the initial miss. Both the broadcasters and the referee seemed to agree on the assessment that it was a turgid match thus far — Danny Rose eliciting two yellow cards courtesy a couple of muscular challenges featured in the highlights, and no time was added at the end of the half.

Gareth Southgate brought on Harry Maguire in place of John Stones at the start of the second half. Like the first half, Belgium were sloppy in the first few minutes and a weak clearance enabled Vardy to pass the ball to Rashford, who wasn’t able to curl the ball around Courtois. England were still looking for their first shot on target. Two minutes later, Belgium were ahead. Adnan Januzaj picked the ball on the right wing after a patient build-up, tricked a wrong-footed Danny Rose and curled a delicious shot across the face of goal, rippling the net; watching, Roberto Martinez was impressed with the young winger’s first-ever goal for Belgium.

A quarter of an hour later, and Jamie Vardy created the pick of his chances for Rashford. He received the ball with his back to the defender, and with some nifty pivoting, he swivelled around Dedryck Boyata and laid the ball on a platter for an untracked Marcus Rashford; no one from Belgium had picked him up. Rashford found himself one-on-one against the giant Courtois, who made a fingertip save around his left hand post. England seemed content with the second spot as the match petered to a close. Southgate chose not to make his third substitution. Close to the end of the match, a smooth Belgian move almost threatened to double their lead but Mertens’ shot across the goal was palmed away by a confident Pickford.

On the evidence of the matches so far, Spain and Croatia must be smacking their lips — especially the former. One of these two teams is most likely to meet England in the semi-finals (if they progress, that is), and England will struggle to keep such a resourceful midfield quiet. Two feel-good victories against weaker opposition will count for nothing as the real tournament starts now. England have many issues to ponder over before their Round of 16 match.

The defence isn’t watertight as well; England conceded goals in a weak group against every single team. Going forward, Harry Kane is world class, no doubt. Additionally, Vardy looked sharp. But profligacy exhibited in front of goal by the younger England forwards — Rashford and Sterling — will hurt England in the knockout matches where they cannot expect to have same number of chances; they will no doubt have to maintain their composure while finishing. Overall, this England side, though untested against major opposition, looks different from their much-hyped, ponderous “Golden Generation”.

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Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 12:16 PM

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