We examine the things learned from Saint Petersburg as Belgium ran out 2-0 winners in the third-placed play-off
A funereal feel to the World Cup third-place play-off sucked even more life out of deflated fans and players as Belgium strolled to a 2-0 win over England in Saint Petersburg.
The glorified friendly was settled by Thomas Meunier’s fourth-minute tap in and a third goal of the tournament for Eden Hazard as Belgium secured a second victory over England in Russia following their 1-0 success in the group stages.
Here, we pick through the bones of both carcasses to examine the things learned.
LIONS LACK BITE
It was a concern before the tournament and escalated as England advanced through the rounds but the Three Lions lack serious bite.
Granted, it’s harsh to discern that analysis solely from this fixture given the heavy legs and hearts, but it’s been an issue throughout and permeated the play-off so it warrants comment.
The set-piece success has been celebrated after nine goals were scored in Russia from deadball situations, but it’s masked genuine deficiencies from open play.
Belgium and Croatia are easily the best sides England have faced at this tournament, yet in large parts, the off-ball movement was too static, passing options have been easily plugged while the possession pointless and without plan or penetration.
There’s a distinct difference between patient and methodical build-up play and lethargically recycling the ball between your centre-halves on the halfway line with nobody able to offer an easy ball.
Ultimately, we saw a huge chasm of quality between Belgium and England, none more so than in midfield were Kevin De Bruyne was given so much space and time he could practically pause, sketch out his plans of attack, show it to the England players and then proceed to bring his creation to life.
And credit to Belgium because their counter-attacking was cut-throat, Hazard’s goal a fine example of their ability on the break, but they didn’t require much plotting as England just presented space and their neck.
When Gareth Southgate’s side went forward, they were so slow in the final third and their opponents just bolted into blocks and didn’t even need to stop space before capitilising on errant passing.
England and Southgate do deserve goodwill from unexpectedly reaching the semi-final but we would be doing them a disservice not to want and expect more as well.
SCRAP THE PLAY-OFF
It won’t happen, but it should.
The third-place play-off is an utterly futile fixture and it was played in a manner which represented its lack of value as both teams went through the motions.
Of course, that is purely in footballing terms because, financially, FIFA will milk the World Cup cow until it is bone dry with ticket sales, sponsorship, adverts and TV revenue all being guzzled up through another fixture on the schedule.
But for the supporters and players alike it is completely meaningless and, if anything, has worked to siphon some of the pride from England’s tournament success.
It was a stinker of a game and understandably so after both sets of players slumped to the turf after their respective semi-final defeats.
Memorably unmemorable is perhaps the only way to describe the third-place play-off, one that shouldn’t even exist and hopefully won’t when the tournament expands to 48 teams in 2026.
LUKAKU MISSED HIS GOLDEN CHANCE
Collectively the play-off has little significance but on an individual level it does at least present those in the Golden Boot race another route to top spot.
Romelu Lukaku was two goals behind leading man Harry Kane and the Belgium frontman had his fair share of opportunities to close the gap.
On two occasions De Bruyne made use of the space and time afforded to him by threading two gorgeous through balls into the striker’s path, once in the first half and again the second, but typically, both times his first touch was dire.
Never has the beauty and beast analogy been more apt than in the link-up of De Bruyne and Lukaku but the Manchester United man will rue not adding to his tally.
And his heavy first touch will likely mean Kane emerges as one of the most underwhelming Golden Boot winners in recent years.
Only Kylian Mbappe can catch him and the France teenager requires a hat-trick in the World Cup final to draw level, so we’re looking at the England captain capturing the coveted personal prize with three penalties, one deflected effort he knew nothing about and two close-range strikes.
The easiest six goals he’ll ever score make for an anti-climatic finish.