Expert Predictions: England vs Belgium

England’s World Cup campaign continues on Thursday night with their final Group G clash against a Belgium side currently third in the FIFA rankings.

The Three Lions have already qualified for the first knockout round but the meeting with the Red Devils will give the most significant indicator yet of where Gareth Southgate’s side are really at – will this be the World Cup where England finally produce consistently scintillating football, unshackled by the weight of history, or are they merely flat-track bullies having dispensed of Tunisia and Panama with relative ease?

Football FanCast aren’t privy to a crystal ball. But our England experts, Sam Preston and editor-in-chief James Jones, have shared their thoughts and predictions ahead of Thursday’s 7pm kickoff…

This match can essentially be reduced to a risk assessment for Southgate, that assessment being whether the need for momentum and the other benefits of another positive result outweigh the potential jeopardy of a key player like Harry Kane suffering a serous injury in a game that may not even decide who finishes top of the group – with the two nations currently separated by disciplinary record alone, England and Belgium could end up drawing lots for pole position.

Add to the equation the fact finishing second would actually give England a much clearer route to the final, and Southgate is left with some crucial decisions to make.

Would you stick with England’s strongest XI or rest some key individuals?

James:“Southgate has to go with his strongest XI to make a statement that England are serious about this tournament. The importance of taking momentum into the knock-outs should not be underestimated. Of course, there will be worries about key players like Kane potentially picking up an injury, but the same can be said of the previous two games. Barring Dele Alli we came through those unscathed despite coming up against a Panama side who clearly preferred wrestling to football. As soon as you start ‘resting’ players for other games your focus switches slightly from the task at hand – that task is to beat Belgium and win the group.”

Gareth Southgate

Sam:“I think that Southgate should keep changes to a minimum as we saw in Euro 2016 what can happen when England ring the changes – they lose momentum. That said, if the likes of Kane or Lingard stay in the team and get an injury that rules them out of the rest of the tournament, Southgate will get criticised. Criticism would also come if England do not rotate, thrash Belgium ‘B’ to top the group and run into the global elite in one side of the draw while Roberto Martinez guides his side past Japan, Mexico and Croatia to make the final! So I wouldn’t blame Southgate at all if he was tempted to heavily rotate, especially after reports that Belgium will make ten outfield changes. In Gareth we trust.”

The offensive efficiency of England’s 3-1-4-2 has been one of the key stories of the tournament so far, simply because of how inventive and unusual the formation is. There’s no doubt it gets everybody on the front foot and plays to the natural strengths of the personnel involved, but it seems to have an achilles heel in facing three-man defences – the backline structure Roberto Martinez employs – and Southgate failed to find an obvious alternative during the warmup friendlies.

What do you see as England’s best Plan B?

James:“I see no reason why we can’t switch to four at the back. Perhaps go 4-3-3, as that offers a number of midfield combinations that could help break down a three-man defence.”

Sam:“The first port of call should be a minor tweak, dropping another midfielder in next to Jordan Henderson in something of a 3-2-3-2 that may morph into 3-4-2-1 to completely match Belgium up. It may be tempting to reach for a back four but apparently Southgate’s men are only training in a back three, so constructing a four-man defensive line on the hoof would be unwise as the tournament wears on.”

Because their squad is so Premier League-centric, Belgium seem like far less of an unknown quantity than Tunisia and Panama. Even if the quality they boast is incomparably superior through players like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, that familiarity between the two squads, much of whom share the same clubs, could act as something of a leveller on Thursday.

Belgium's Danger Men - Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne

Who do you see as Belgium’s key danger men?

Sam: Their best team – which we are unlikely to see on Thursday – has unbelievable quality on paper and against Tunisia they began to show it. In their 3-4-2-1, De Bruyne’s influence is compromised but Hazard is given great freedom to roam inside like he did for Chelsea in the 2016/17 title win. So he’s the key at full strength and the man their World Cup hopes rest upon. In a rotated lineup, Michy Batshuayi and Mousa Dembele will be looking to impress.”

James: Belgium are a good side on paper but their biggest issue has been their struggles to gel as a team. We all know the dangers De Bruyne, Hazard and Romelu Lukaku pose but we shouldn’t ignore Dries Mertens, who has a goal and assist from Belgium’s opening two games.” 

Where will this game be lost and won?

Sam: “Team selection on both sides will dictate whether this is the Premier League-tempo battle for first that many expected pre-tournament or a France v Denmark-style stroll as both sides attempt to protect their players if second place in the group proves theoretically more desirable. That makes it tough to pick a key battle but club teammates Eric Dier and the aforementioned Dembele might enjoy a physical slog as they both look to force their way into their respective managers’ knockout plans.”

James: It’ll go down to which team wants it more, I imagine. By all accounts, Martinez intends to rest a number of players for this, which gives England a distinct advantage from the start. That said, will England’s players be too relaxed knowing they’ve already qualified, or will they be hungry to build on that performance against Panama?” 

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And finally chaps, let’s hear your score predictions…

James: “This is obviously a very exciting time for England and for that reason I think we’re going to continue our run of form and get all three points. 2-0 victory, Kane with one and Jamie Vardy with the other.” 

Sam: “I can see this one being an exceptionally drab affair because Belgium won’t come to the party. 0-0, which would mean that who tops the group is decided based on fair play. I’ve got no problem with our fringe players accepting some bookings if that means Japan and not Colombia in the next round.”