Eden Hazard runs at outside centre back Phil Jones during Belgium 2-0 England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff in St. Petersburg at Russia 2018.

Belgium 2-0 England: attacking the outside centre backs

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.

Front three of Lukaku and Hazard flanking de Bruyne during Belgium 2-0 England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff.

Front three of Lukaku and Hazard flanking de Bruyne.

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.

Dier and Delph at base of four man box midfield during Belgium 2-0 England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff.

Dier and Delph at base of four man box midfield.

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.

Phil Jones tracks Hazard too far back during Belgium 2-0 England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff.

Phil Jones tracks Hazard too far back.

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.

Lukaku passes through the channel where Phil Jones should be to create a goal during Belgium 2-0 England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff.

Lukaku passes through the channel where Phil Jones should be.

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.

Loftus-Cheek runs at the space down the left during Belgium 2-0 England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff.

Loftus-Cheek runs at the space down 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.

Eric Dier runs through the channel but his shot is cleared off the line during Belgium 2-0 England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff.

Eric Dier runs through the channel but his shot is cleared off the line.

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.

Kevin de Bruyne not picked up by the midfield during Belgium 2-0 England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff.

Kevin de Bruyne not picked up by the midfield.

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.

Phil Jones poor defensive position against Eden Hazard during Belgium 2-0 England in the World Cup Third Place Playoff.

Phil Jones poor defensive position against Eden Hazard.

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.

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8 Responses to Belgium 2-0 England: attacking the outside centre backs

  1. Zaph Mann 16th July 2018 at 2:01 am #

    It would be interesting to get your take on the performances of the Spurs players at the World Cup – some worrying signs in there, and a few plusses

    Maybe another article?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 16th July 2018 at 12:54 pm #

      It was a bit of a mixed bag. I thought a number of our players had good World Cups cups – Son, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Hugo, Trippier, Eriksen, Kane, Davinson. Others had a rather ordinary tournament or didn’t really get a chance to play much eg Rose, Dier and Dembele. The only concern for me was Dele. He looked great in the first 30 minutes against Tunisia, but never fully recovered from his injury and just looked to be constantly playing at 50%. Hopefully he gets some time off for rest and recuperation.

      Overall, I have two concerns from this World Cup. Firstly, for England, as I think we have a number of problems to iron out, which I mentioned in the conclusion above. Second, for Spurs, I’m only concerned that we either won’t have our entire first team for the first couple of matches or that they are rushed back and are completely knackered for a long and punishing season.

      I will try and put together an article to expand on these thoughts in this reply. Overall though, I think that international and club football are so very different that a player can be great for club but awful for country eg Sterling or vice versa eg Sissoko looked immense in a France shirt at Euro 2016, but the clumsiest player on the pitch for Spurs.

      The most pleasing thing for me was to see Toby play so frequently for Belgium, and so well, when we’d been told all season that he wasn’t fit to return and couldn’t play back-to-back matches. Any chance that he patches things up with the club and it could be the signing of the summer.

      • Zaph Mann 17th July 2018 at 8:17 am #

        There are so many things to consider – and I think that this is what Pochetino brings (with his staff) In this case I think Southgate and his assistant understood far more about the LIMITATIONs of the Spurs contingent outside of the whole system than 2016.

        In 2016 Hogdson threw them together w/o understanding that is is a whole mechanism. Spurs can and often do move the ball slowly – and key players can be a liability without other players (Erikson, Llamella etc…) around them

        Kane is a worry to me – his confidence and application is 100%, but at the end of the season he was jaded and ended the WC the same way. He gets the goals by massive application – but he’s not near the peak of 2017 when he was Bale-like unstoppable.

        I think that these players are limited by supreme defensive systems (Deli Alli too) and unlike Hazard, De Brunje, etc – the few they need their coaches to unlock a new phase of football

  2. brian 16th July 2018 at 2:23 am #

    While takeng in your account and anlysis,of this game.I cannot but refer to my opion of the game against Croatia.In that England,going forward… move the ball far to slowly.And while Loftus Cheek seems too have the technical abilility,he seems to lack the interlecthal part of the game to use his ability to any use.As for Phil jones,with out whanting to sound a complte moaner,he is not of an International standard,to front up against the major Inernational teams.Maybe the faroe Islands or malta,but certainly not any of the major Nations.All credit too belguim,they exployted Englands weakness.Kane was left stranded by the inability of Englands Half backs,too feed him any thing decent.I thought your tactical summing up of the game,was just about spot on.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 16th July 2018 at 1:02 pm #

      Hi Brian, yes we do progress attacks quite slowly other than when Henderson was looking for those long passes over the top to Sterling. These passes did become predictable though and defences could adjust eg Croatia. We do need players that can move the ball through midfield as the current trio of Dele, Sterling and Lingard all want to run in-behind and this sees Kane as the default player that has to come short, minimising his effectiveness.

      I agree with you about Loftus-Cheek. He undoubtedly has the talent, but doesn’t yet know how to put it all togther to become a very effective and devastating player. I like the fact that he’s gone on record to say that he wants to play consistent football, so hopefully he’ll get that as it’ll speed up his development.

      Spot on about Phil Jones!

    • Zaph Mann 17th July 2018 at 8:20 am #

      I’m not sure that it’s a lack of intellect (Think Gascoinge) more a lack of confidence to pause and move the ball 2-3 feet sideways while taking a look.

  3. freeflow12 16th July 2018 at 2:46 am #

    Thank you for your tactical analysis of the England team during this 2018 World Cup. You are absolutely right. I wonder if England have any playmaker to be included in the future. There are Lallana, Winks, Maddison and even Pritchard to name a few! Second striker is also an issue. How do you see us facing this problem in the coming years? With the qualification of Euro 2020 and World Cup 2022, I can see promising times ahead. COYS!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 16th July 2018 at 1:11 pm #

      I can see the second striker issue either becoming Dele Alli or we go to an extra player in central midfield against the better teams to stop the central trio becoming stretched. I think Southgate tried that against Belgium here with his four man box, but Loftus-Cheek played too wide on the right and needed to be more central.

      I think Gareth Southgate needs to decide if he really wants the second striker to play up with Kane or as a number ten. To get the best out of Kane he really needs Dele floating off him. If Southgate wants to get the best out of Sterling too then he needs to play as a wide forward.