If I was being generous I’d describe this match as low key, as I’m being honest I’ll say it was dull. Having both already qualified England & Belgium made a combined 17 team changes, needless to say Kane, Hazard, Lingard, De Bruyne, Mertens and Sterling were not amongst the 5 retained with both managers thinking ahead to the round of 16.
Belgium’s reserves gelled faster with Tielmans and Dembele impressing in midfield whilst Dier struggled to kickstart England’s passing game. Tielmans forced Pickford into a smart save whilst a Fellaini knock down was almost spilled but Pickford just about stopped himself making a dreadful mistake. At the other end Danny Rose caused the Belgian defence problems down the left but the half ended goalless.
The second was following a similar pattern of midfield probing and cautious play until on 51 minutes Adnan Januzaj turned Rose and produced a sublime shot to beat Pickford for 1-0. It was the kind if moment that had us all thinking Januzaj was the next big thing for about 5 weeks 5 years ago.
England responded with Delph & Alexander-Arnold becoming more adventurous and Rashford found himself clean through after a brilliant disguised pass from Vardy but dragged his shot wide. England continued to push but Southgate stuck to his own rules of engagement- trying to win the game without using his best players, with the only player brought from the bench Danny Welbeck. The game eventually petered out and Belgium claimed top spot on Group G.
The debate raged before and after the game of England should have gone all out to win this game or look to finish second in the group.
Piers Morgan (he of the silent g) claimed Southgate sent England out to lose- this is blatant nonsense, England didn’t set out to lose but Southgate wasn’t prepared to win by compromising the more important game next week.
There has been a lot of talk from pundits about ‘momentum’ and how England have lost theirs- this is absolute twaddle for two reasons. Firstly England’s first team didn’t play this game so how exactly is watching the reserves play denting confidence and would it really have improved them beating Belgium B?
Secondly whilst building momentum is important it’s only important at the business end of a competition. Take Germany 4 years ago- they edged through the group and were fortunate to sneak past Algeria before kicking into high gear in the quarterfinals. Spain lost their opener in 2010 to edge through their group, Italy needed a dodgy decision to see off Australia in 2006 after a dull series of group games. The teams who had the most momentum in the group phase of those tournaments were Colombia, Holland & Argentina respectively, I remember watching my first World Cup at Mexico ’86 where the teams with the early momentum were Denmark & the Soviet Union both of whom went out in the next round: you get the point.
England have undoubtedly ended up in the easier side of the draw and get an extra day to prepare for their next game. If England don’t get through against Colombia some will inevitably claim it was because England were disrespectful to the round of 16 (which sounds oddly disrespectful to Japan) but it’s the same calculated risk France, Belgium, Russia & Croatia took after securing their early qualification, on Tuesday we’ll find out of if it paid off.