Thursday night saw the end of England’s World Cup winning streak, as Belgium took a 1- 0 victory courtesy of Adnan Januzaj. Gareth Southgate made a number of drastic changes to the squad that trounced Panama earlier in the competition, choosing to give more players on the squad the opportunity to start, including Leicester’s Jamie Vardy instead of Harry Kane and Spurs defender Eric Dier.
The First Half
The whole game was weighted with the knowledge that both teams were already qualified for the knock out stages and whoever lost would have an arguably easier route to the final, avoiding Brazil, Argentina or Portugal. The Red Devils made this abundantly clear, saying before the match that winning would not be a priority, benching notable players such Man United’s Romelu Lukaku and Spurs players Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
The fact that this England side couldn’t best such a team is rather telling though. The squad didn’t possess the energy and sense of fun that was seen in the previous group stage games with set pieces lacking the clinical precision and well oiled feel they did then. The squad was never bad, but looked sluggish on the pitch, giving away the ball too easily, and playing with none of the magic that has enthralled the country so far. Gary Cahill, Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold were solid and reliable, a good sign for Southgate heading into the more difficult knock-out stages, but the attacking duo of Marcus Rashford and Vardy never looked dangerous enough to make a real impact. Going into half-time, the scores sat at 0 – 0.
The Second Half
The match continued in a similar vein after the restart, with England’s efforts eventually giving way to a tidy chip over the heads of the defence from Belgian forward Adnan Januzaj.
Nice goal by Belgium pic.twitter.com/wxO3DTunt1
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) June 28, 2018
After the matches only goal, the game carried on with no major incidents, with Rashford and Danny Welbeck making a few unsuccessful shots on goal. As the final whistle blew, both teams left the pitch to the boos of the unimpressed Russian fans in attendance; an underwhelming end to an underwhelming match.
What needs to be learnt from this defeat
Following this loss, there may be calls that it all went a bit ‘England at an international tournament’, but that doesn’t do credit to how odd the context of the game was, what it means in relation to the previous matches, and how Southgate has managed the squad so far.
The man himself said in a post match interview that;
“I thought the game was a really good test for us. We knew the level was going to be higher than we’ve had even with teams making changes. Belgium had controlled possession in our back third and we found it tough to press, but in terms of chances, we were fairly even…I think we’ve learned a lot from the game. It will be a good game to go and review. The objective was a mid-term one. We’ve got everybody time on the pitch and they’re ready to come in, those that hadn’t previously played, and we’ve protected those who had.” (BBC)
It’s difficult to suggest that Southgate hasn’t been managing the team with a level of careful intelligence that has been missing from England’s international efforts recently, and there’s merit in resting key players to give others a chance on pitch ahead of games with more weight, but after this game, its evident how reliant England can become on Harry Kane’s right foot. There is also the issue of the momentum that has been lost after 4 victories on the trot; England has long struggled to get back up after getting knocked down, so we will have to wait and see if Southgate’s gambles in this match will pay off.
What’s next for England?
Following this loss and qualifying for the knock-outs, the squad will have a few days off before facing Columbia on July 3rd, and then either Switzerland or Sweden on July 7th.