England 0-1 Belgium: England Fail To Show Plan B

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England made eight changes against Belgium, with Gareth Southgate opting for rests and minutes for squad players rather than seeking to maintain the momentum of a winning start to the tournament. Whether that decision is vindicated remains, of course, to be seen, with a tough fixture against Colombia ahead. It is worth noting that Belgium themselves made nine changes, and that only Adnan Januzaj’s excellent finish and Marcus Rashford’s inability to hit the target himself separated the two sides. At times, though, it felt that while Roberto Martinez probably learned a fair bit about Belgium’s plan B, also known as Marouane Fellaini in the inside left role, Southgate did not get as much from this game.

The decision to play Rashford and Jamie Vardy up front did not elicit much of a change in system from England. The approach play was considered and attempted to work opportunities by creating overloads in between the lines of Belgium’s defence, rather than looking, generally, for more direct passing routes. These would have maximised Vardy’s ability in behind defences, with Rashford dropping off to link play and drive infield again, but a few Eric Dier long passes aside, England kept to their general attacking premise.

Unfortunately, without Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire, a late substitute, progressing the ball into midfield areas, there was too much space between England’s defensive line and midfield line for the sort of considered build-up play that characterised England’s previous two performances in Russia. In addition, while Trent Alexander-Arnold was game on the right-hand flank, Danny Rose again struggled to make an impression and failed to close down Januzaj, this after his marking (with Walker’s) was poor for Panama’s goal in the last fixture.

England are best when they can create movement between the lines, moving the ball forwards before springing into the half-spaces with the two central midfielders, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, popping up to work overloads with the wing-backs or with Raheem Sterling or Harry Kane dropping off. This is aided by Jordan Henderson’s screening and passing from deep, and the wide centre-backs, and John Stones, being able to carry the ball forwards, compressing the space and allowing the midfield to push or drop depending on how best to achieve the room to receive the ball. Every aspect of the team needs to function to play this way: there must be energy, dynamism in looking to pass and move, concentration in positioning, and communication. The first two England performances, especially the first ten minutes against Tunisia and most of the game against Panama, had all of this; last night’s fixture suffered from not nearly enough tempo.

Some England players did do well enough, at least to confirm their reliability as back-ups. Once again, Ruben Loftus-Cheek stood out for his control under pressure, his ability to hold up the ball and hold off his marker, and his movement forwards and out worked well enough with Alexander-Arnold. While Dele Alli will return if fit, Loftus-Cheek can feel unlikely; for many other teams, he would be the first choice. Fabien Delph was tidy in possession and carried well a few times, while Alexander-Arnold did enough to suggest that an injury to Kieran Trippier would not be the end of the world. Jamie Vardy worked hard but he is not a good enough player for England to alter their system totally to suit him; nonetheless, he is a reliable option off the bench for when games become more ragged. And Dier’s passing, as mentioned, was good at times; he lacks Henderson’s dynamism and vision, though, and is one for the games where security matters more than creativity.

Perhaps the biggest single take-away from the game was that England do not have a Plan B in the way that Martinez showed, using Fellaini in a sort of shadow striker role, chasing down the ball, winning headers, and generally being a nuisance so that others could play off him. England’s Plan B appears to be their Plan A, but with less fluidity and less dynamic players. The constant movement, runs in to space out wide, the progression of the ball from deep – none of this quite worked against Belgium. The rest may have done some players good, but whether or not this benefits the campaign overall, and whether Southgate can come up with an alternative should his first plan fail, remains to be seen.

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