Belgium put paid to England’s hopes of leaving the World Cup with a medal with a 2-0 victory against the Three Lions in Saint Petersburg.
The Three Lions were looking to rouse themselves once again having seen their dreams of the final crushed by an extra-time winner by Croatia on Wednesday, but they would face stiff opposition from a Belgium side determined to complete their best-ever finish to a World Cup finals bay taking that bronze medal.
In the end, it was Belgium who won out, courtesy of goals either side of half time from Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard. But what did we learn from this afternoon in Saint Petersburg, ad England and Belgium’s respective World Cup campaigns came to a close?
England finally show a bit of attacking threat
The stats surrounding England’s lack of attacking threat from open play at this World Cup were damning. Indeed, only Iran had a lower rate of shots on target from open play per game of all 32 nations playing in Russia. A reliance on set pieces had dragged them through to the semis, but it was not enough to get past Colombia.
Here, at least, they tried to get the ball into the box a bit more. Ruben Loftus-Cheek looked lively in the centre, while Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose weren’t shy in putting the crosses in. Eric Dier, meanwhile, came agonisingly close to scoring what would have been just England’s fourth goal outside of set pieces with a second-half dink that was cleared off the line.
They still have a huge creativity problem, of course, but increasing their confidence has to be a part of that.
Harry Kane had no place on the pitch
Kane was, quite comfortably, the worst player on the pitch in this match. It’s not enough to suggest that England’s tactics left him isolated here, as this was probably the first time since Panama that they didn’t, but he was woefully ineffectual up front. He had 26 touches of the ball in the entire 90 minutes – to put that into context, Jesse Lingard (a second-half substitute) had 45.
A large part of that, surely, must come down to Kane’s fitness. The Tottenham striker will almost certainly claim the golden boot, and yet he has looked a shadow of his usual self since England emerged from their group. The lack of goals isn’t a huge concern on its own, but he had one shot on target in four matches (the penalty against Colombia) and that was a major problem.
It’s easy to say now in hindsight, but perhaps Jamie Vardy could perhaps have been the better option to start in this match.
Belgium were devastating on the counter-attack
The more England drove forward in the second half, the more they looked likely to be stung on the counter. For every near chance that they had to get on the scoresheet, they ceded space in the midfield that Belgium exploited regularly.
Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard were key factors in said counter attacks, and better composure from Dries Mertens or a cleaner effort from Meunier could have seen Roberto Martinez’s side double their lead sooner. However, their reward finally did come when Hazard raced through to prod past Jordan Pickford to prod past Jordan Pickford to give Belgium the cushion they deserved.
England looked vulnerable against teams willing to take them on and pass the ball along the ground – Croatia punished them on Wednesday, and Belgium followed suit.
Martinez missed Thomas Meunier against France
With Thomas Meunier suspended against France in midweek, Belgium all of a sudden looked far too narrow and devoid of creativity out wide, and the deployment of Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini for spells at wing-back did not help in the slightest.
The return of the Paris Saint-Germain man against England showed exactly why he is so vital for them, as evidenced by his goal within the first five minutes. While he is impressive at the back, it is his contribution going forward and availability on the wing to stretch defences that the benefit of having in the team really starts to become obvious.
It might not have made a huge difference to the result had he been available in the semi-final, but Belgium would have looked that bit more balance.
Eden Hazard has arguably been the best player at this World Cup
It’s rare that one sees a player has a standout performance in every game he plays at a World Cup, and yet that probably applies to Hazard here, such has been his outstanding showing in Russia over the past few weeks.
7 – Eden Hazard has been directly involved in seven goals at the World Cup (three goals, four assists); the joint-most of any Belgium player since 1966 (Jan Ceulemans also with seven). Rocket. #BELENG #BEL #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/Gaz8VqtsSE
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 14, 2018
In a match that was perceived by many here to be lacking in importance, with the expectation that performance levels might dip due to the lack of intensity, the Chelsea man still had the ability and energy to tear England to pieces
Had Belgium made the World Cup final then Hazard would have the Best Player award sewn up. As it is, he remains a strong contender.
— B/R Football (@brfootball) July 14, 2018