A much-changed Belgium side claimed top spot in World Cup Group G with a 1-0 victory over England in Kaliningrad.
With the likes of Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker and Kevin De Bruyne nowhere to be seen, both managers opted to give some of their fringe players a chance to impress and give them something to think about for the last 16.
In a match largely devoid of incident, Adnan Januzaj provided the main moment of magic with a terrific shot early in the second half, in what turned out to be the only goal of the game. Belgium earned the win to set up a knockout round clash with Japan, while England will face off against Colombia in what had previously been adjudged to be the “easier” pathway through the knockout stages.
But what did we learn from Thursday night’s result, and from the group as a whole?
England’s second string looks worryingly short in creativity
The link-up play and organisation of England’s first two performances was nowhere to be seen again Belgium, replaced with a display that was high in enterprise but lacked in tangible creativity.
This performance had the hallmarks of a team that was not set up to play together, as Eric Dier looked lost at the base in midfield and the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph struggled not just with their own endeavours, but also in bridging the gap to Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy up front. It wil not have been a performance that will unduly worry most of England’s regular starters.
However, one or two of today’s inclusions will give Southgate something to think about
If there has been one key area where England could arguably have been improved upon in their first two matches, it was in the wing-back area – particularly on the left. Ashley Young was solid yet unspectacular, and would have been under more pressure but for his set-piece delivery.
In that regard, Danny Rose will surely have given the manager something to think about for the last 26, with a dynamic display down the left that will have put pressure on Young for the next round.
Trent Alexander-Arnold down the right also turned in a professional, comfortable performance, but Kieran Trippier is arguably more secure in his position.
Belgium’s individual quality still shines through
In terms of a game plan, Belgium didn’t really have one. They defeated England, sure, but that was largely down to the fact that their makeshift eleven had better players than England’s makeshift eleven.
It did, however, cement the fact that Belgium have tremendous strength in depth. Being able to call upon the likes of Mousa Dembele, Michy Batshuayi and Thorgan Hazard is a great perk for Martinez in his role – particularly as those players are strong enough in their own right, but still just behind the first-choice eleven so as not to pose the manager a big selection problem.
As with the first two matches, it was individual strength that saw Belgium through – but will that be enough to deal with the likes of Brazil or Uruguay?
This group was not a serious test for either England or Belgium
England and Belgium had arguably the easiest time of it in their group compared to the rest, insofar as they had qualification to the next round sewn up largely without having to break a sweat (aside, of course, from the former’s late winner against Tunisia but even then the next results would have effectively ended Tunisia’s hopes).
That’s all well and good, but it also means that neither side has been properly tested yet. We still don’t know how good these teams are yet and, crucially, neither do the managers. The knockout stages wil obviously pose a greater test for both Belgium and England but it’s hard to know if either are ready for the big challenge ahead.
England’s knockout stage path will not be as easy as they suspect
For all of the talk regarding the better of the two knockout pathways, England might not be around long enough to enjoy it. Colombia topping Grope H on Thursday will have thrown the cat among the pigeons, and should have changed the outlook of what happened in Group G later that evening.
The South Americans will give England a big problem next week, that surely goes without saying, and England aren’t a good enough team to be looking beyond Colombia (even if they are missing James Rodriguez in the next round).
The pressure is very much on Gareth Southgate to deliver at least a quarter-final performance now – they had much more of a chance of achieving that against Japan, so will this result come back to haunt them?