It was the top-spot decider that neither side seemed especially determined to win, with the team who were to finish second in Group G able to plot a more agreeable route to the late knockout rounds of the 2018 World Cup.
And it played out like a match of little consequence, bereft of daring, risk and excitement – save for Adnan Januzaj’s stunning winner – as Belgium strolled, ever so slightly quicker than England, to a 1-0 win.
“We want to win football matches,” Gareth Southgate protested after the defeat. “We’re not happy to be beaten.”
It was then put to the England manager that if he’d wanted to win he’d surely have brought on Harry Kane in the second half, rather then Danny Welbeck. “Yeah, of course,” came the England manager’s revealing reply.
Southgate made eight changes to the side that hammered Panama 6-1 four days earlier, with Belgium boss Roberto Martínez making nine alterations to his XI. As such, and with both sides safely through to the last 16 before kick-off, there is a temptation to write this drab encounter off as inconsequential, offering little insight into either team’s prospects of a deep World Cup run.
But there was one thing that Thursday night’s insipid standoff in Kaliningrad made abundantly clear from an England perspective: without the buzzing freneticism and spontaneous ingenuity of Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard, the Three Lions have no bite.
Of course, Kane’s absence from the line-up will be pinpointed in most quarters as the greatest factor hampering England’s goal threat against Belgium. After all, the skipper has already scored five times in Russia this summer, still leading the race for the Golden Boot.
But Kane’s effectiveness at the World Cup has been a consequence of the hard work and inventiveness of his supporting cast. The Tottenham Hotspur striker’s five goals are comprised of two penalties, two close-range set-piece second balls and a Ruben Loftus-Cheek effort that deflected in off his heel. In truth, it’s been easy pickings for a goal-getter of Kane’s calibre.
Against Belgium, England’s stand-in strike duo of Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy did not benefit from softballs, instead starved of service, their best chances coming from opportunities they conjured for themselves. Thibaut Courtois‘ goal was troubled twice in 90 minutes.
This isn’t to say England didn’t have their chances, it’s just their opportunities to pounce too often petered out before the whites of the Belgian posts came into view.
With their 3-5-2 up against Belgium’s 3-4-3, England enjoyed a numerical advantage in the middle of the park, but on the occasions they were able to break beyond the Red Devils’ double pivot or Mousa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini, no white shirts emerged into the spaces between the lines.
It is these zones in which Lingard, breaking forward from the midfield trio, and Sterling, dropping back from the highest point of attack, are at their scheming, inventive best.
Only Kane has shot for goal more times than Lingard for England at this World Cup, and the Manchester United man’s tireless and intelligent running creates space for others, poking holes in the opposition as he did for the penalty he won against Panama.
Lingard and Sterling also demonstrated their ability to combine with effortless, rapid exchanges between the lines of the opposition’s midfield and defence against Panama, linking up with a sumptuous one-two before Lingard curled home one of the standout goals of the group stage.
With only two England goals to his name in 40 caps, and without a strike in Three Lions white since October 2015, it’s been rightly noted that Sterling has not yet managed to translate his confidence in front of goal at club level – he scored 23 times for Manchester City last term – to the international stage.
But to assess Sterling’s contribution in such basic terms is to misunderstand his true strengths. The former Liverpool attacker is a prolific difference-maker in the final third, where his off-the-ball movement exposes space for himself and others to take advantage of, and his quick thinking and quicker feet are huge assets when space is at a premium.
The pair’s deputies – Loftus-Cheek for Lingard; Rashford for Sterling – offered no shortage of endeavour, and exceeded the first-choice duo when it came to physicality and bustle. But they could not replicate the effervescence and off-the-cuff creativity Lingard and Sterling all but guarantee.
The Belgium loss may ultimately have little bearing on England’s World Cup fortunes – indeed, football may have taken a small step closer to its long-awaited return home, given the perceived advantage second place in Group G has brought.
But the gaping holes exposed in the absence of Sterling and Lingard, it seems, cannot be filled by any other Englishmen; there must be no more rest for the wicked duo.