World Cup 2018

England vs Belgium: Battle for title of true dark horses

 • by Mark Thompson
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To tank or not to tank, that is the question – as the 2018 World Cup version of Hamlet put it for England.

By finishing second in Group G, the Three Lions could give themselves a nicer path through the knock-out rounds. In all likelihood, it’d mean facing Switzerland or Mexico in the quarter-finals rather than Germany or Brazil.

This is all assuming that England’s only chance of finishing as group runners-up is by deliberately throwing the game, but Belgium have shown themselves to be a dangerous team so far in the tournament.

Brilliant Belgium

Only Belgium had scored as many goals as England after the opening two rounds of matches, the Group G challengers matching Gareth Southgate’s side toe for toe.

They also top the expected goals (xG) per game ranking, proving that their sweeping aside of Panama and Tunisia was no fluke.

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They were one of the question marks before the World Cup after their relatively poor showing at Euro 2016, but Roberto Martínez seems to have got the team working together.

The back-three system seems to work, although using Yannick Carrasco as left wing-back can sometimes lead to defensive lapses.

It means that they’ve been able to get a lot of their attacking talent on the pitch at the same time, though: Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard behind Romelu Lukaku, with Kevin de Bruyne and Axel Witsel in central midfield.

De Bruyne and Witsel aren’t the perfect midfield duo defensively, though – Manchester City might be able to get away with putting their attackers in central midfield but they’re able to do that because the whole team presses and counter-presses the opposition so well. Belgium aren’t Manchester City.

To add to that, De Bruyne might be in an even more forward-minded role for Belgium as he was in for City last season. His game in the opening two games has been more characterised by chance creation than it generally was under Pep Guardiola in 2017/18.

What this means for England

That England’s attacking strength is focussed in their own advanced central players means that this could be an interesting match-up.

The advanced positions of Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli/Ruben Loftus-Cheek have meant that there has sometimes been open space around Jordan Henderson for the opposition to exploit. They and the Raheem Sterling-Harry Kane duo – or their replacements if Southgate decides to give other players a run-out – will look to find space behind De Bruyne and Witsel; they, Mertens and Hazard will look to find the space that the Lingard and Alli roles leave.

It would make sense for this game to be an end-to-end affair of sorts, with the ball pinballing around in midfield, only for each back three to absorb enough pressure and bring an end to the attacking move.

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Will England throw the game?

As much as is possible, Southgate’s side will be out to win this game.

“We would want to keep momentum, and keep progressing as a team,” Southgate said earlier this week.

“I’ve heard talk of it being better finishing second, but how do you work all that out really? Let’s go and enjoy it again.”

Belgium pose an interesting test after Panama and Tunisia, and the match will be a chance to see just how good both sides really are.

England have dominated their games, but only ten of their 29 shots have come from open play, and there was a bit of staleness in the second half against Tunisia particularly. Martínez’s side have had problems too, though, looking vulnerable at times against both Panama and the Tunisians.

Both sides have claims to the title of dark horses in the World Cup, but this game could be an indicator of which side deserves it.

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