England played their final group stage match in the 2018 FIFA World Cup against Belgium, in a top of the table clash in Group G. With qualification to the knockout stages already assured with maximum points thus far, both teams made their intentions clear within their team selection. Gareth Southgate made eight changes from the side that beat Panama, noticeably with Marcus Rashford being given a chance to impress and Trent Alexander-Arnold earning a first competitive cap for England. Roberto Martinez on the other hand made nine changes, with Michy Batshuayi leading the line and Thorgan Hazard, the brother of Eden, earning a start (see Figure 1). The game which followed had little surprise given the circumstances…
Two second-string sides laboured in a low-key encounter where three points to seal top spot and a seemingly tougher route through the tournament appeared an ominous prize. A superior disciplinary record had meant that a stalemate was always likely to see Gareth Southgate’s side finish at the summit of the Group especially when the Belgium’s racked up several yellow cards within the first half of the game. However, that would become irrelevant as Adnan Januzaj’s fine 51st minute strike was enough to decide the match and see Belgium through as Group G winners.
- Positive moments
A forgettable first-half performance
England made a decent start to the game with Jamie Vardy pouncing on a Thorgan Hazard back pass ahead of Thomas Vermaelen, forcing Thibaurt Courtois to stretch out his leg to intercept. England once again looked a threat from set-pieces with Ruben Loftus-Cheek heading wide under pressure from a Trent Alexander-Arnold corner. Belgium also showed fleeting early intent of their own with Youri Tielemans calling Jordan Pickford into action with a long-range strike. Marouane Fellaini, a constant threat all night for England, used his strength and aerial prowess with a knockdown which sparked a scramble, forcing Gary Cahill to slide to clear the ball off the line after Jordan Pickford lost the ball from his clutches.
Overall, England were slow, laboured and predictable within the first half. They faced plenty of opportunities to play out from the back with Jordan Pickford starting these, however they lacked the imagination to move the ball with speed to get up the pitch. The ball would easily get to their centre halves (Phil Jones, John Stones and Gary Cahill) but options in front of them were limited, resulting in England’s biggest threat to come from a long ball in behind for both Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford to chase. The rafts of changes and undeveloped relationships between players were pretty evident, affecting the whole fluidity of the team.
Slight second-half improvement
England improved somewhat in the second half with Marcus Rashford having a sight of goal soon after the restart, but he failed to get enough bend on his effort to trouble Thibaurt Courtois. Adnan Januzaj then went up the other end beat Danny Rose in 1v1, cut inside and curled a superb effort high into the England net. Though England were vastly disjointed in midfield as they lacked their pivot in Jordan Henderson, they should have equalised midway through the half when Jamie Vardy slipped Marcus Rashford through on goal. As he bared down on the Belgium goal against Thibaurt Courtois, he decided to attempt to open his body to curl his effort past Courtois but he stood tall and saved his effort with his fingertips. England had 11 shots in this match but failed to score, this was the same number as in their previous match against Panama where they scored six times! England brought on Danny Welbeck to try and give them some more attacking impetus but Belgium looked more likely to extend their lead in the closing stages. Jordan Pickford had to parry a long-range Dries Mertens effort and Marouane Fellaini lashed an effort into the side-netting as Belgium were victorious to seal their place as Group G winners. Belgium have now won all three of their group stage games in consecutive World Cup appearances, the first nation to so do since Argentina and the Netherlands in 2010 and 2014 respectively.
Worryingly for England, this is the first time in their 15 appearances at the World Cup that they have failed to keep a clean sheet in the first-round group stages of a tournament.
Man of the match
There were few candidates for England man of the match after this game given the unimaginative performances. However, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was one of the few players to really stake a claim for a start within the last 16. He was a threat from set-pieces heading just wide from a corner, made a couple of surging runs through the Belgium midfield only to be stopped through being fouled and continued to show for the ball even when Belgium’s grip tightened in the second half. Trent Alexander-Arnold deserves huge credit on his World Cup debut as he looked assured and confident in possession, being entrusted with the set-piece responsibility for England. His performance levels dipped in the second half, ultimately leading to his withdrawal with 12 minutes to go but he certainly did himself proud.
Looking ahead to the last 16 and beyond
England’s route to the final is now clear (see below), with a supposedly more favourable route through the tournament by avoiding a potential clash against the mighty Brazil in the quarter-finals. This was quickly dismissed by England striker Jamie Vardy, as he insisted “I don’t think there’s any such thing as an easier half of the draw. Everyone’s qualified for a reason. We’ve seen some big nations go out”:
Last 16 – Colombia (Tuesday 3 July at 7pm)
Quarter Final – Sweden or Switzerland (Saturday 7 July at 7pm)
Semi Final – Spain, Russia, Croatia or Denmark (Wednesday 11 July at 7pm)
Final – Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Belgium or Japan (Sunday 15 July at 4pm)
Gary Neville summed up the big opportunity that now awaits for England with: “The country has been euphoric and everyone has been overly positive in the last week. We should now be the most positive we’ve ever been. That’s not being arrogant or ignorant, we could lose against Colombia on Tuesday, no doubt. But if you think back to 1990 when we had to beat Belgium and Cameroon to get to a World Cup semi-final, we’ve now got an opportunity to play Colombia and Sweden or Switzerland to get to a World Cup semi-final. In 1998 we had Argentina in round two, in 2002 it was Brazil with Rivaldo and all those players and in 2006 it was Ronaldo and Portugal. In 2010 it was Germany and in 2014 it was Italy and Uruguay in the group. Those players now will be disappointed because they didn’t play well, but what a chance. Be positive more than ever I think, now."
The right call?
The question remains: did Gareth Southgate make the right call within this match to rotate his squad in preparation for the knockout stages. Realistically, only time will tell us the answer but positively England have now used all 20 outfield players from their squad within the 2018 World Cup. This should mean that players who come off the bench should have a real impact as they now have match sharpness and the confidence from playing within the tournament. Gareth Southgate summed up his reasoning within his post-match press conference:
“When you’re a manager you’ve got to make decisions that are right for your group and are right for the primary objective. Sometimes those decisions will be criticised and I understand that. We’ve got 20 outfield players that have played in a World Cup and that’s hugely important for the feeling in our camp over the next few weeks. I had to balance that and I know in some quarters that will be criticised but I’m entirely comfortable with that. Sometimes you have to make decisions for the bigger picture.”
Tuesday’s game against Colombia in Moscow has been described by Gareth Southgate as the “biggest in a decade” as England have not won a knockout game at a major tournament since 2006 with a 1-0 win over Ecuador in Germany courtesy of a David Beckham free-kick. This result against Belgium should not affect the optimism and confidence that had swept through the nation as England now have a real opportunity to progress to at least the semi-finals. Ultimately, football may be coming home but we just took a slight bump along the way!