On a day where Japan made World Cup history as the first team to qualify from the group stages on the fair play tiebreaker ruling, England and Belgium managed to serve up one of the dullest world cup games I’ve witnessed.
The 17 changes made by both sides set the tone for the match. A change of that magnitude was bound to disrupt the flow of both teams and clearly revealed the lack of winning intent from both managers. We will know how wise these decisions were in a few days.
The Premiership was heavily represented in this fixture. As a league known for its fierce competition, pace and excitement, you would struggle to believe that only 4 of the 26 players who featured in had not played a Premiership game.
One of the few moments of quality came on 7’ when Youri Tielemans rifled a 25-yard shot down the throat of Jordan Pickford, who just about managed to parry it away. The 21-year-old Belgian, who plays his club football for Monaco, has that Champions League swagger and reminds me of a young Clarence Seedorf. I remember his assured performance against Arsenal in the Champions League for Anderlecht and it was clear to me then that we have a potential midfield “hall of famer” coming into the game.
Then on 9’ Marouane Fellaini headed an Adnan Januzaj lofted cross back across goal, triggering a goal mouth scramble. Somehow the ball trickled through Pickford’s grasp and was goal bound before Gary Cahill made a last-ditch goal line clearance.
Both teams were looking sloppy and pedestrian in possession. The crisp incisive passing we had seen this World Cup was AWOL. England were very predictable and our build up play and passing from deep lacked conviction. I am a huge fan of Eric Dier, but he looked lost in a central midfield that lacked cohesion with Fabian Delph.
28’ and Fellaini was at it again, chesting down a cross from a corner and firing a low shot on goal only for Trent Alexander-Arnold to clear off the line. I am putting the sloppy defending down to a blip, but we need to sharpen up before our second-round tie with Colombia.
Alexander-Arnold who stepped in for Kieran Trippier also took over set piece duties. Set pieces have been our deadliest weapon so far in this tournament. On 35’ we created one of our best chances as Loftus-Cheek narrowly headed a corner wide. If we are going to win this tournament, we are going to have to maintain this threat from set pieces.
Half time: England 0 – 0 Belgium
The second half started with John Stones making way for Leicester’s Harry Maguire. I couldn’t help but think how nice it would be to see Maguire lining up next to Sokratis for Arsenal next season.
On 49’ Marcus Rashford wasted a good chance, after a typical close down from Jamie Vardy won the ball high up the pitch. One minute later on 50’ the ex-Manchester United winger Januzaj showed his old youth team colleague how it should be done. With a FIFA 17’ rollover and drop of the shoulder, the Real Sociedad player perplexed Danny Rose and beautifully curled his shot past Pickford from the left side of the penalty box. Ironic! I remember when England courted Januzaj for the national team after a blistering start to his Man U career. Funny how things turn out.
England 0 – 1 Belgium
Our midfield continued to lack cohesion, with Delph virtually anonymous. Apart from the Januzaj wonder strike, it didn’t feel like any of the B team players wanted to claim a first team sport.
On 65’ Maguire demonstrated how an international defender should distribute the ball, accurately drilling a pass into the feet of Vardy from deep. Vardy then slipped Rashford through one on one with Thibaut Courtois.
Never give a World Class goalkeeper a chance!
I like Rashford and one day he will be a superstar, however he demonstrated that he’s not quite at the required consistency to be trusted as a starter. As with Loftus-Cheek, he has all the ingredients. It would be nice if they had more game time at Chelsea and Manchester United to develop that top-level polish. Imagine how good we would be then!
78’ and Danny Welbeck came on for Alexander-Arnold, who had put in a solid performance. Liverpool definitely have a player on their hands. The only Arsenal player in the England squad then went close on 83’ but his attempt was cleared by Fellaini. It was not going to be our day.
On the full time whistle I couldn’t help but think, both sets of players proved why they were on the B team.
Full time: England 0 – 1 Belgium
Man of the match: Adnan Januzaj
Next stop: Colombia, 3 Tuesday July
I am still confident in Gareth Southgate and this team. I would be disappointed with anything less than the semi-finals as we are better than Colombia and Switzerland or Sweden. However, we all know football doesn’t work like that.
But as I have said before with Harry Kane you always have a chance!