By Alistair Hendrie
England aren’t used to flying home from a World Cup this late. Their stay in Russia came to an end on Saturday as they were defeated 2-0 by Belgium in the third place play-off, and although this setback won’t hurt as much as their 2-1 reverse to Croatia in the semi-finals, it will go a long way to show Gareth Southgate how much his side need to improve if they are to advance further at the European Championships in 2020.
This was England’s longest stay at a World Cup since 1990 in Italy, where they also finished fourth, but Belgium’s greater quality of resources underlined the marker that has been set for Southgate and his young, inexperienced and hungry side. Eden Hazard tormented the English defence with pesky dribbling and sudden bursts of pace, the Chelsea winger slotting under Jordan Pickford to wrap up the victory on 81 minutes. Another Premier League gem, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, set teammates free with his range of passing and speed of thought. And although the introduction of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford at half-time provided England with much needed verve and spark, they rarely looked capable of a comeback after Thomas Meunier netted with three minutes gone.
In hindsight, despite the celebratory mood of the last month, it’s easy to forget this Three Lions side still consists largely of young pups. For instance, Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are both only 22; Rashford is still just 19. Furthermore, England’s back three in St Petersburg of Harry Maguire, John Stones and Phil Jones had 72 caps between them, whereas Belgium’s defence – Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Meunier – had 297.
That perhaps fails to excuse an insipid performance from England in their farewell outing. Harry Kane was stilted and absent for long periods. Raheem Sterling, so talented yet so frustrating, was indecisive. The underdogs sat back and let Belgium have the ball, Hazard and De Bruyne directing traffic and attempting to slide in Romelu Lukaku. On a more positive note, Kieran Trippier bent and whipped balls across Thibaut Courtois’ goal with malice, while Eric Dier almost equalised with a dink that was hacked off the line at the last moment by Alderweireld.
The Red Devils took the lead when Hazard crossed low for Meunier, who wriggled goalside of Danny Rose to poke in from six yards. It was an untidy finish, but the pace of Hazard’s delivery made the goal. Belgium thrived from thereon in, De Bruyne looking for Lukaku at every chance. After one such move, Lukaku fluffed his first touch when bearing down on goal and the Manchester United man would regret how he allowed Pickford to intervene.
As Jones struggled to track Hazard, and Belgium’s Nacer Chadli left the game injured for Thomas Vermaelen, Belgium settled in a rhythm and knocked the ball around with the confidence and arrogance of future tournament winners. Some would bet heavy money on them to lift the trophy at Euro 2020. Indeed, keep in mind Germany won the 2014 world cup after finishing third in 2010.
After De Bruyne embarrassed Stones with a nutmeg, England created their best chance of the match on 69 minutes. Rashford wrong-footed every yellow-shirted defender on the pitch with a diagonal ball that set Dier through with an unobstructed path to goal. The Tottenham Hotspur man steadied himself with a touch and floated an audacious chip over Courtois, Alderweireld sliding in on the line to prevent a goal that would have swung the tie in England’s favour.
Having scored the decisive penalty against Colombia in the second round, Dier was suddenly a genuine goal threat. He headed wide, and should have done better, after an improvised cross from Lingard. Although Trippier’s deliveries were handing England hope, Belgium took advantage of how the game opened. Meunier pinged Pickford’s fingers back with a volley, while Hazard settled matters on 81 minutes, darting across Jones and side-footing beyond Pickford with a finish of composure and skill under the circumstances.
It might feel patronising to hail this England team as a group of rookies who huffed and puffed against more seasoned opponents. “Didn’t they do well?”, and all that. We should remember that England avoided the likes of Spain, Brazil and Germany – a quirk which to be fair they had no influence over – and these last two defeats will provide Southgate with more conundrums than clarity. How can the team create more from open play? How can Southgate coax the best from Sterling?
Still, the likes of Maguire and Trippier look tailor-made for international football, while Kane can always be relied upon to score goals. Added to that, Jack Wilshere’s transfer to West Ham could revitalise his career and offer Southgate another option. Youngsters such as Ademola Lookman and Ryan Sessegnon should also be on the radar soon. Perhaps in 2020 we’ll be looking at a team of proven class rather than simmering promise.
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