By Neil Leverett
- England second-string side lost 1-0 to weakened Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday
- Three Lions finish runners-up to Red Devils in Group G after Adnan Januzaj’s second-half strike
- Gareth Southgate’s men now play Colombia in last 16 but could have easier knockout stage route
KALININGRAD, RUSSIA – After England’s narrow 1-0 loss to Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday, what did we learn after the Three Lions finished Group G as runners up in Russia?
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England’s second-string are rusty
England’s loss on Thursday night has seemingly split opinion squarely down the middle. Whatever camp one was in regarding playing an on-paper easier last 16 match before a far more difficult passage from the quarter-finals of the World Cup, compared to a tougher but but easier route to Moscow in July 15, the nation has become more divided on a matter for the first time since Brexit.
After Gareth Southgate made no less than eight changes to his successful starting XI however, it was painfully obvious that those waiting in the wings looked extremely rusty for a lack of game time after an exhaustive domestic campaign.
Both Phil Jones and Gary Cahill looked leggy and did not exude confidence, whilst Danny Rose looked uncertain on the left and was the blame to Adnan Januzaj’s goal and in attack both Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford struggled to influence the game – however it could also be argued that the two were as confused as the millions of England fans watching on, clearly torn as to what would be the better outcome.
Trent Alexander-Arnold may have won plaudits for filling the boots on Kieran Trippier at right wing-back, but that was largely down to what could be perceived as a lack of effort in other areas.
Whether one vehemently disagreed with the Three Lions’ approach in Kaliningrad or puts it down to a potential tactical masterstroke to avoid a potential denouement at the hands of Brazil, the lack of minutes on the field for the fringe players of the squad was evident and is a concern going forward.
Did we really learn much?
Rather going against the very essence of this piece, the facts are we may not have learnt very much from Thursday night’s rather confused display. Before the game, both Southgate and Roberto Martinez had protested the importance of keeping a winning mentality, whilst the Spanish head coach had also suggested hours before kick off, that a win ‘was not the priority’.
The starting XIs were extremely telling whether both sides needed rest key players to keep individuals fresh of risk suspension with yellow cards hanging over their heads. This was not the strongest English or Belgium side – far from it.
Had England won, the feel-good sentiments in English football – more pertinently amongst fans – would have continued to gain momentum, perhaps forgetting that a win would have been achieved without the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Romelu Lukaku in the Red Devil ranks. It would have been a hollow victory.
So surely the same is true of defeat? England were not at their best, but the suggest the spirit has been lost is for now wide of the mark. The spark that has been apparent England in the opening two games against Tunisia and Panama was obviously not there, but was it really wanted in the first place? We are really none the wiser in regard to England’s abilities in the knockout stages.
Worse still, had they played a full-strength XI and still lost, faith would then plummet. Had England need the win, Rashford would surely have taken one of his chances; Had England needed a win, captain Kane would have been catapulted onto the field. No? At this stage there are few clues.
Three Lions will be fresh for knockouts
There are two ways of looking at Southgate’s selections against Belgium. One was the ideal scenario to avoid the poisoned chalice of the more difficult side of the draw through almost apologetic defeat. The other far less sinister angle was simply to rest his charges ahead of what the England head coach has called ‘the biggest knockout game for a decade‘ in trying to break their knockout stage win drought.
The best chance of achieving that will be through a replenished starting XI, whilst Colombian fatigue could be a determining factor during the latter stages of the game in Moscow in Tuesday night.
Some have argued that momentum has been lost, but the truth is that most of that same exuberant lineup were that, but safely on the confines of the substitutes’ bench in Kaliningrad. There is no reason why the same starting XIs from both Tunisia and Panama will not be ready to explode out of the traps once more.
Job done for Gareth?
England’s loss on Thursday night has seemingly split opinion squarely down the middle. Whatever camp one was in regarding playing an on-paper easier last 16 match before a far more difficult passage from the quarter-finals of the World Cup, compared to a tougher but but easier route to Moscow in July 15, the nation has become arguably more divided on a matter for the first time since Brexit.
From an analytical viewpoint, the vim and vigour was simply not present in the England performance. However, with many first-teamers watching on from the sidelines that was always likely to be the case, and it will at least partially clear that neither substitutes of starters seemed particularly interested.
Three Lions’ hopes of progressing in this tournament have see the playbook ripped to shreds to accommodate a style that suits all in the squad, i.e. fluid counter-attacking football, with a emphasis of possession and pressing.
How Southgate could be so criticised for attempting to plot an easier path to a potential showpiece final in at the Luzhniki Stadium a fortnight on Sunday then, is rather rather hard to understand.
Three Lions have ‘easier’ route to Moscow
With regard to the last 16, there are two schools of thought. Play Japan in what is again on-paper a far more winnable contest, but then face now favourites Brazil in the quarter-finals – a side that have the mental edge over England, not least from 2002 – or face a strong Colombian side but then the prospect of a negotiable Sweden or Switzerland tie for a first semi-final since Euro ’96.
It frankly could go either way. Both paths of the draw have their pitfalls depending how one sees it. Colombia will likely play a more offensive game than Japan would, which could suit England’s counter-attacking emphasis to a ‘T’.
On the flip side, Colombia will have that attacking flair that has been untested on England’s strongest XI and will be a handful for the Three Lions make no mistake about it – with or without talisman James Rodriguez. But having now been placed on the side of the draw with only two previous World Cup winners – themselves and Spain eight years ago in South Africa – no one can deny that the rite of passage on the horizon is a favourably more negotiable one.
‘Easier’ yes. More awkward? Possibly. If Los Cafeteros are put to one side, a potential meeting with either Sweden or the Swiss is all that stands between England’s first World Cup semi-final birth since Italia ’90’s dawning of penalty woe for the Three Lions.
Two sides that England will be favourites to beat having dealt with the Swiss twice in qualifying, and the Swedes who simply do not boast the likes of Kane, Rashford or even the creativity in the final third. What the Swedes do have however is stubborn defensive line which will not be easy to purge. Add to that England’s failure to get the better of their Scandinavian opponents in their last two major tournament meetings in both 2002 and 2006 and a quarter-final clash will be a tense affair. But before then the South Americans must be beaten.
England face Colombia in the World Cup last 16 on Tuesday night at the Otkritie Stadium in Moscow at 7pm BST
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