England’s World Cup campaign finished with a 2-0 defeat to Belgium in the Third Place Playoff.
Thomas Meunier opened the scoring in the fourth minute, converting Nacer Chadli’s cross, before Eden Hazard finished Kevin De Bruyne’s pass late on, following a series of good chances for England.
But ultimately Belgium were in control from an early stage and hit England on the break several times. De Bruyne and Hazard were a constant threat and as England put more bodies forward, the pair were at the heart of each Belgian counter-attack.
England were more composed than in the Croatia game but the key takeaway again will be to show more ruthlessness when on top in games.
Belgium v England
Overall the first half was an even affair, but England’s defending was sloppy for Meunier’s opening goal. Chadli found space down the left, with Danny Rose allowing Meunier to steal in front of him with relative ease and convert the cross from close range.
Harry Kane shot wide from the edge of the box, and Toby Alderweirald hooked a shot over at the other end, but the game properly opened up in the second half.
Gareth Southgate replaced Raheem Sterling and Rose with Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford at half-time, and England looked far more attacking as a result. Lingard was the first to make an impact, sending a looping volley across goal that Kane was millimetres away from finishing.
Belgium responded immediately. De Bruyne again found a pocket of space on the edge of the box, passing through John Stones’ legs to Romelu Lukaku and putting him through on goal. But the Manchester United striker’s touch was poor and Jordan Pickford was out quickly to smother at his feet.
Dominant But Not Ruthless
So began a spell of dominance that England really needed to capitalise on if they were to get a result from this game. First, Eric Dier played a lovely one-two with Lingard to go one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois. He showed superb composure to lift the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper, but Alderweirald slid in and hooked the ball off the line at the last moment.
Dier was proving to be an unlikely source of chances. A few minutes later he linked up with Lingard again, but could only glance a header wide. Maguire then met a cross of his own, following another superb Kieran Trippier delivery, but again it fell agonisingly wide.
England were therefore made to pay. The warning came two minutes before, as a beautiful, flowing one-touch move carved England apart. Dries Mertens crossed to Meunier whose powerful volley was equalled by Pickford’s strong right hand.
The goal that finished the game was the result of more disappointing defending, but it was the two best players on the pitch who combined to make it. De Bruyne received a pass on the half turn and drove downfield before releasing Hazard. Phil Jones was stuck in a twist, feet going one way and his body the other, unable to intercept the pass. Hazard strode on and crashed his shot low past Pickford.
The little Belgian was denied a second by a superb last-ditch tackle from Stones, who has shone this tournament. As Moussa Dembele was introduced, there was never any danger of England getting back into it.
There will be no post-mortem for England this time around. They’ve surpassed their own expectations by reaching the semi-final, and have united a country in need of positivity.
It must be remembered that Southgate only introduced his 3-5-2 tactic just before this tournament, after qualifying using 4-3-3. England have played with possession and pace that many thought was beyond them, showing maturity that belies the squad’s international inexperience.
Stones has shown just why Manchester City paid £50m for him, showing bravery and composure in both defence and possession. Harry Maguire has become a formidable weapon from set-pieces and shown comfort on the ball, and England have found a goalkeeper in Pickford who looks capable of being world-class.
Trippier has grown from Spurs’ second-choice right back to being compared with David Beckham. Harry Kane will likely walk away with the Golden Boot.
But the missing pieces of the jigsaw are obvious. The Kyle Walker experiment at right centre-back has been more successful than anticipated, but in honesty, he’s been culpable for several goals conceded and is the most likely of a defensive trio to make a mistake.
Jordan Henderson, for all of his admirable qualities, is only one man. Despite his very best efforts, he can’t press multiple players at the same time and operate as a playmaker at the same time. His passing is better than he is given credit for, but he is not the player to unlock a defence.
The Future Is Bright
He needs a reliable partner in the middle of the park; the glaring omission from the squad from the outset. We need a passer in the vein of De Bruyne, Luka Modric or Toni Kroos that possession can be based around. The onus must be on Southgate to find a player to fulfil this role during the next qualifying campaign. Lingard, Dele Alli, Reuben Loftus-Cheek and Raheem Sterling are all wingers or number tens – they are floaters rather than dictators. Harry Kane’s service in the latter stages is testament to the lack of chances that this team creates.
And although the squad have overcome several psychological hurdles in this World Cup, the process has highlighted the ones we still need to address. Against Tunisia, Colombia, Croatia and Belgium, the team have been utterly dominant in parts but have not been clinical. Letting teams off the hook at this level of play has proven costly: ruthlessness needs to be improved and engrained.
The future is bright though. Players like Phil Foden, Ryan Sessegnon, Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho and many others are coming through and are showing incredible promise. They just need the regularity of games in top leagues to fulfil their prodigious talents and hopefully improve this squad.
Should England qualify for the European Championships in 2020, the semi-finals and final are all held at Wembley. What better incentive can there be for Southgate, and the nation, to continue pulling in the same direction, getting behind the team and furthering the tentative steps of progress that we’ve already taken into a major victory? What a party that could be.