This was never going to be a World Cup encounter of white-hot intensity but it’s difficult not to feel the anti-climactic tinge.
Belgium edged England in a forgettable Group G clash in Kaliningrad, the three points delivered courtesy of a beautiful left-footed strike from Adnan Januzaj, which proved enough to clinch top spot and set up a round-of-16 encounter with Japan.
England, on the other hand, failed to emulate the 1982 side and take maximum points from the group stage but have a date with Colombia to look forward to next week as their World Cup journey continues.
This was a night of precious little goalmouth action. As expected, both teams remained in a low gear, drifting through one final 90-minute assignment before turning their attention to the proper business of the last 16.
After the last-minute victory over Tunisia and scoring goals for fun against Panama, what should have been the most robust assessment of England’s World Cup credentials against Roberto Martínez’s much-fancied Red Devils turned out to be little more than a stretch of the legs – and not an overly productive one.
As a demonstration of squad depth, Belgium clearly came out on top. However, Southgate can rest a little easier knowing that he will have Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling et al refreshed and free of any niggling injury for what is sure to be a challenging 90 minutes against Colombia on Tuesday night in Moscow.
Vardy fails to shine
There is no denying Jamie Vardy’s fairy-tale rise. From non-league football to firing Leicester City to an unlikely Premier League and then starting for his country in a World Cup, his is a story more compelling than most.
However, while the 31-year-old will always look back on this night with immense pride, it didn’t quite happen for him on the pitch.
Paired with Marcus Rashford in a dangerous-looking attacking duo, there was hope that Vardy could exploit the space left behind a high Belgian defensive line.
It didn’t quite pan out, though. The organisation and physicality of Belgium’s three central defenders – Dedryck Boyata, Thomas Vermaelen and Leander Dendoncker – ensured that Vardy was feeding on scraps.
It wasn’t what Vardy would have been hoping for in his first World Cup start.
Alexander-Arnold unfazed by World Cup debut
Handed his first World Cup start at the age of 19, Trent Alexander-Arnold showed that no match is big enough to faze him. Of course, featuring prominently in Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final last season served as ideal preparation for such occasions.
And granted, with progress to the last 16 already secured, any sense of pressure was eased significantly, but the right-back still proceeded to bomb up and down the right flank and remind Southgate of his options in that position.
However, Kieran Trippier has enjoyed a stellar tournament in Russia and has no immediate concerns over being usurped, but it is still comforting for England fans to know that such a competent deputy is ready to take his chance.
Going up against makeshift left wing-back Thorgan Hazard, Alexander-Arnold found some joy linking up with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Vardy. During the first 45 minutes, the enterprising full-back had more touches (51), created more chances (2) and swung in more crosses (8) than any of his team-mates.
Alexander-Arnold could hold his head up high at the final whistle, ending the game with a passing accuracy of 88 per cent, two key passes and 76 touches in total.
Dembélé still a class apart
In a game of little incident, one was drawn to the sublime Mousa Dembélé. The midfielder, who is reportedly set to leave Tottenham Hotspur this summer, is confined to the substitute bench most of the time for his country.
We’re still not exactly sure why.
During his time with Spurs, the 30-year-old has proven himself as one of the most accomplished Premier League midfielders in possession and looked characteristically classy against England.
Martínez prefers Axel Witsel but, judging by this performance, Dembélé can count himself unlucky to be part of his country’s second-string.
There is a sense that Loftus-Cheek, with his power and poise, can develop into a player of Dembélé’s craft (indeed, there was a moment when the England man powered past Dembélé before winning a free-kick in a dangerous position).
At 22, the Crystal Palace midfielder has plenty of time in which to learn, but England will be immensely fortunate if he turns out to reach a level anywhere near the Tottenham enforcer.
Tielemans one to watch
The dynamic Monaco midfielder benefitted from his manager’s wholesale changes, being paired with Dembélé in central midfield with Axel Witsel and Kevin De Bruyne both rested.
And the 21-year-old was clearly keen to make an impression and stake his claim for a starting berth in the last 16, having been given just four minutes over the first two games by Martínez.
Tielemans tested Jordan Pickford’s reflexes early on with a stinging 25-yard drive and showed an impressive turn of pace to tear through the England midfield a few minutes later before just failing to find Michy Batshuayi with a through ball.
He set up the goal, too, finding Januzaj with a clever ball. It’s clear that Tielemans, who made his Champions League debut for Anderlecht at the age of 16, has a tremendous future ahead of him.
England must regroup for Colombia challenge
Ultimately, Southgate can be thankful that his players got the job done in the first two games. The luxury of being able to rest the likes of Kane and Sterling cannot be understated, especially with the energetic, fast-attacking proposition of Colombia to come in the next round.
Make no mistake: the South Americans will be England’s toughest test of this World Cup. Even with De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku on the bench, Belgium are a talented side but facing Colombia with a place in the quarter-finals up for grabs will be the ultimate acid test for Southgate’s young Lions.