England’s 1-0 defeat to Belgium on Thursday night failed to answer the questions many hoped the final Group G game of the World Cup in Russia would solve.
We still don’t really know if Gareth Southgate’s team are capable of beating a country of Belgium’s calibre. We still don’t really know if England are even good enough to beat Colombia in the next round. And for that matter, we still don’t really know how feared this Belgium side – as a collective rather than a cohort of unquestionably talented individuals – should be anyway.
Of course, that comes down to the nature of a game that, because of the permutations of the World Cup’s knockout tree and qualification being already secured, neither manager appeared particularly keen on winning anyway, at least not keen enough to push their resources to the maximum. Throw in eight changes from the side that so dominantly dispensed of Panama, and it’s hard to understand what Southgate should be taking away from England’s most abject performance at this World Cup, if anything at all.
But in some respects, the nature of England’s performance because of those changes provides Southgate with a crucial lesson to take into the rest of the tournament. England were always going to lose their groove with such a vastly overhauled starting XI and the consequential concern amongst supporters seems forgetful of the fact the Three Lions’ most valuable and talented asset, Golden Boot leader Harry Kane, didn’t even make it onto the pitch.
Even with those changes in mind though, England were so startlingly removed from the roaring lion that ripped Panama to shreds, and held their nerve against a packed Tunisia defence to net a stoppage time winner. They lacked the same intensity, intricacy, ambition and pride. Perhaps that’s partly a consequence of how insignificant the game seemed, even more so after both rotated XIs were announced, but it also relates to the contrast between Southgate’s system and the personnel involved compared to England’s previous World Cup outings.
The fundamental upside of England’s 3-1-4-2 is how it gets every player arriving in the space they like to cause damage from, rather than simply occupying it. Kyle Walker is a fantastic example, starting off at centre-half but being brought into the game more in the right-back pocket when England are on the ball.
The same applies for the other members of England’s backline, who are at their most impressive when bursting into midfield, and the two roaming No.8s who pick up balls between the lines and press on from the engine room into the kind of space a No.10 would take up.
Plenty of Dele Alli’s performances before the World Cup were spent toiling at No.10, where he received the ball static and was expected to beat his immediate marker by doing something special every time. In the 3-1-4-2 though, he’s on the front foot by the time the ball comes his way – he’s already got the momentum to play a first-time pass, to weave through defenders or take a shot at goal. Jesse Lingard’s delicious curler against Panama is probably the best example of this at the tournament itself, and how well-suited the Tottenham and Manchester United stars are to the role Southgate’s carved out for them.
For England’s second string though, the same doesn’t quite apply. Take Phil Jones; yes, the Manchester United defender has experienced playing in a back three before, but he performs the role in as orthodox a fashion as possible. He’s not going to step up and out wide with the same technical confidence as Walker, and it’s exactly the same case with Gary Cahill on the other side – once again, well-acquainted with a three-man defence from club level, yet not a particularly ambitious or forward-thinking player within it. He occupies the position, rather than using it as a starting point to influence the game by pushing forward.
But perhaps the ultimate difference for England, upon a night in which they failed to score, came in more offensive areas of the pitch. Fabian Delph isn’t the same category of midfielder and his inclusion significantly shackled England’s ability to stage the same kind of attacks from the engine room. He lacks the energy and flair of Alli and Lingard, and while the Manchester City ace is a dependable central midfielder, he completely changed the previously ultra-offensive dynamics of England’s engine room.
Likewise, for all the criticism Raheem Sterling’s received – rightly or wrongly – at this World Cup, he brings so many more dimensions to England’s forward line than Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy did on Thursday night. The Manchester City forward can come short to form an attacking midfield trio with Alli and Lingard, run beyond Harry Kane to create threat behind the opposition defence or roam wide to stretch it. Even if his technical consistency often leaves something to be desired, his movement – and how it created space for those around him to exploit – was a key component of England’s wins over Panama and Tunisia.
In that sense, Sterling was a bigger loss to England than Kane on Thursday night, with neither making it on from the subs bench. In contrast, Rashford and Vardy stuck to the width of the penalty area, and it almost felt as if the pair were in a personal contest to see who would eventually begrudging drop deep to receive the ball first.
They did link up to create England’s best chance of the match – a delicious one-two which Rashford failed to curl beyond the ranging frame of Thibaut Courtois – but for most of the game, they only showed real interest in speeding beyond the opposition defence, hoping one of England’s many chips over the top would eventually find them. Against a competent Belgium back three with height and pace, that was always going to be difficult.
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And more than anything else, that’s what Southgate is left with to take from England’s defeat – contemplation over whether the outer squad is as good a fit for his system as his most trusted starting XI.
That can of course be spun as a positive – variety in depth is as important as quality in tournament football. But the real concern is what happens when one of England’s first-choice starting XI is absent through injury or suspension, and how their replacement affects the balance and inner dynamics of the incredibly intricate setup that inspired such dazzling performances in the opening Group Stage games. 3-1-4-2 works for Southgate’s dream-team, but not so much when the squad is stripped down to picks out of necessity.
That too, harks back to one of Football FanCast’s biggest concerns heading into the World Cup; while Southgate’s Plan A has produced some of the best football England have produced at a World Cup in a generation, it’s not wholly obvious what the Plan B is when 3-1-4-2 doesn’t quite work – in Thursday’s instance, because the right personnel weren’t available. As much promise as there undoubtedly is in this young and ambitious England team, that could well prove to be the achilles heel as they enter the crucial knockout stages.