This Belgium team is full of stars but it’s difficult to take your eyes off Eden Hazard. Brilliant throughout the World Cup, the Chelsea winger enjoyed himself in Saint Petersburg on Saturday as Belgium eased to a 2-0 third-place play-off victory over England.
Gareth Southgate made five changes to the side that lost Wednesday’s semi-final to Croatia. Out went Jordan Henderson, Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young, Kyle Walker and Dele Alli, in came Phil Jones, Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Fabian Delph and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
However, it was Belgium who looked fresher, with Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings as England struggled to add cohesion and rhythm to their attacks.
Like against Croatia, the Three Lions failed to convince when they got the ball in open play in Belgium’s final third.
Their opponents, on the other hand, looked much more assertive and confident. Hazard, in particular, was typically effective in engineering chances while De Bruyne demonstrated the kind of cutting-edge playmaking this England team sorely lacks in central areas.
Belgium’s first goal was a beautiful thing. Nacer Chadli’s flicked-on header reached Romelu Lukaku in midfield. The Manchester United striker spun and angled a perfectly-judged through ball back to Chadli, who had made a clever run on the outside of Kieran Trippier.
Chadli’s first-time cross was excellent, finding Thomas Meunier after the wing-back had got goal-side of Rose. Meunier finished with his shin to give Belgium an early advantage.
An early goal can often be just the kick up the backside a team needs but England looked distinctly second-best. Their best opening during a drab opening half came when Raheem Sterling found Harry Kane only for tournament’s leading scorer to uncharacteristically snatch at his effort.
Kane once again looked far from 100 per cent. It’s unclear if the Tottenham Hotspur striker has been carrying a knock but he once again looked sluggish leading the English line.
Hazard and De Bruyne looked anything but. While Hazard buzzed menacingly from flank to flank, De Bruyne made good use of the space he found in between England’s midfield and defence.
There were two moments when De Bruyne split the England defence with a nutmeg pass. Both of them set-up Lukaku, having first slid the ball through the legs of Dier in the first half before repeating the trick on Stones in the second period. On both occasions, however, the Manchester City midfielder was denied a brilliant assist because of Lukaku’s poor control.
De Bruyne eventually got his assist though, sliding a pass to Hazard from which the 27-year-old made no mistake, firing low and hard beyond Jordan Pickford to finish England off.
Despite that, Belgium stroked the ball around with a sense of swagger. They always seemed capable of finding that extra gear, usually through the pace of Hazard. When they did pick up the tempo, England’s defence looked vulnerable.
Coupled with the defeat to Croatia, this has been a sour end to England’s journey in Russia but it can once again be used as an incentive for change. As has been well-documented, Southgate has a young, hungry group of players. To take them to the next level, invention and imagination has to be introduced to the midfield.
Too often in this tournament England have looked most menacing when jostling for position as a Trippier cross flies through the air. It’s, of course, unrealistic to expect something on the level of De Bruyne, who has in the last two years blossomed into one of the most accomplished midfielders in the world, but there is no reason why England can’t strive for better from open play.
They are capable of it. England’s most inspired passage came through Dier, surprisingly. The Tottenham midfielder exchanged passes with Marcus Rashford to beat the Belgian defence and chip Thibaut Courtois. It looked as though Dier had found England’s equaliser but Toby Alderweireld raced back and hooked the ball off the line to deny his clubmate.
Southgate is not afraid to experiment. It’s not a reach to suggest that slick passers like Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Wilshere can offer a new dimension to England’s midfield.
It’s not a case of just throwing them into the team and expecting them to open up defences, of course, but, having looked well below Belgium’s standard, there has to now be a clear demonstration that Southgate will explore every avenue possible when they reconvene for the UEFA Nations League against September.