Attacking the space around outside centre back Phil Jones saw our World Cup third place playoff end Belgium 2-0 England in St. Petersburg.
Belgium and England both played with a back three, but Robert Martinez’s men executed their counter attacking strategy much better. The Belgian boss set his team up to attack the outside England centre backs. Phil Jones was often the target and he was exposed on both goals as the match ended Belgium 2-0 England in St. Petersburg.
Belgium setup to attack the outside centre backs
Having an initial look at Gareth Southgate’s setup in the England 0-1 Belgium group stage match, Roberto Martinez came with an altered game plan.
Martinez made two tweaks from the first match. Both of these changes made major impacts that gave Belgium the upper hand for much of the contest.
Firstly, Belgium controlled possession by 54% to 46% in that Group G game. Here, they had just 42% of the ball but were incredibly dangerous on lightening quick counter attacks.
The second modification was to play Kevin de Bruyne as a false nine and position Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard on the outside England centre backs. The move put the robust Lukaku up against the more physical Harry Maguire. The fleet feet of Eden Hazard were then matched up on the cumbersome Phil Jones.
In the formation, Kevin de Bruyne could drop in to midfield and provide the guile, intelligence and through passing for the other two.
England central midfield modification
Gareth Southgate modified his central midfield for this match. After a tiring 120 minutes during Croatia 2-1 England and only two full days rest, the England manager brought in three fresh players. Fabian Delph, Eric Dier and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all started in a box midfield along with Raheem Sterling.
Previously, Gareth Southgate had used a base player in Jordan Henderson with two runners ahead of him in Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard. Here Southgate opted for two players at the base with Dier and Delph. Ahead of them Sterling and Loftus-Cheek played much higher up in a box shape behind Harry Kane.
The move seemed to be to combat Belgium’s overload in midfield and play 4v4 in this area. However, England often gave up space in this zone. The four players frequently seemed on different wavelengths and looked like they’d not trained together as a unit.
Belgium attack the outside centre backs
It took just four minutes for the problem of England’s central midfield and Belgium attacking the outside centre backs to manifest itself.
Belgium had played the ball back to Thibault Courtois. Eden Hazard then dropped in short and Phil Jones inexplicably tracked him all the way.
Courtois’ kick was aimed at the taller Nacer Chadli who out jumped Kieran Trippier. Both Dier and Delph had gone forward to press and were caught up field. This left a huge hole between the lines for both Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne.
Lukaku filled the area Dier was patrolling. His perfectly weighted pass was then sent through the channel where Phil Jones should’ve been.
Nacer Chadli raced on to the pass and crossed for the arriving Thomas Meunier to slot home. Meunier had run off and past Danny Rose who hadn’t noticed until it was too late.
Instantly, it was Belgium 1-0 England from what constituted a counter attack against an overly aggressive press. Belgium’s swift movement of the ball over the top to Chadli then exposed the space that outside centre back Phil Jones had left.
England attack the Belgium left
England had more possession of the ball, but struggled to create. The usual avenues that we’ve seen in this World Cup were again our best source of chances. These were set pieces and longer passes for the runs of Raheem Sterling in-behind.
Harry Maguire had a good chance from a corner. Raheem Sterling laid off a neat long pass that a sliding Harry Kane shanked wide.
England’s best spell of pressure came after the interval. Both teams had made changes and this contributed to the Three Lions’ elevation in performance.
Gareth Southgate removed Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose. Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford came on as Southgate moved Fabian Delph out to left wingback and restored his usual midfield three in a triangle. England suddenly had better balance than with the four in a box shape.
Just prior to half time, Roberto Martinez had to make a change. The injured Nacer Chadli had to come off. Thomas Vermaelen came on which moved Jan Vertonghen to left wing back. England was able to expose the spaces that started to appear around Vermaelen and Vertonghen on the Belgium left.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek powered through this zone, but his cross couldn’t find Harry Kane. Jesse Lingard then had a shot from this flank that almost became a brilliant cross for Harry Kane. Eric Dier then streaked through the space to get in on goal. Toby Alderweireld spectacularly cleared his dink over the onrushing Courtois off the line. England’s best chance, which would’ve set up an exciting last ten minutes.
Belgium attack Jones again
England were pushing forward in search of an equaliser, which gave Belgium the chance to counter attack.
Thomas Meunier had seen his shot brilliantly saved by Jordan Pickford on one such breakaway. Eden Hazard then put the game to bed at Belgium 2-0 England just two minutes later.
The space afforded Kevin de Bruyne to waltz on to the England back line was one defensive breakdown. Once more highlighting the spaces in England’s midfield at this World Cup.
The second saw Phil Jones drop much deeper than the rest of his back line to play Hazard onside. Hazard had run this channel around Jones all game and he now bore down on goal.
Kevin de Bruyne easily found Hazard’s run with a well-weighted pass. Hazard raced past Jones and slotted in at Pickford’s near post to make the score Belgium 2-0 England and confirm a third place World Cup finish.
Belgium 2-0 England overall
A valiant effort from England given that the team had a day less to recover from an extended semi-final just 72 hours before.
Gareth Southgate made changes to the team. However, bringing Phil Jones in to the back three just unbalanced the rapport that Maguire, Stones and Walker have built up throughout the tournament. This was highlighted on both goals where Jones found himself out of sync with the rest of the back line.
Belgium did an excellent job of altering their tactics from the first match in the group stages. Playing Kevin de Bruyne as a false nine, as he did against Brazil, opened the spaces around the England outside centre backs for Lukaku and Hazard to attack them.
England has overachieved at this World Cup. Gareth Southgate knows that our squad is still a work in progress and the team’s current deficiencies. Right-sided centre back, left wingback, a central midfield playmaker and the role of the second striker all need to be addressed. However, this England team has an identity and a solid young foundation to take us on more tournament journeys like we have witnessed in Russia.
Final score: Belgium 2-0 England.
MOTM: Eden Hazard.