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.
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In a game that has courted controversy for the value it holds, Belgium raced out of the traps to score their quickest ever World Cup goal – the returning Thomas Meunier prodding in Nacer Chadli’s fine cross following a rapid counter-attack after just three minutes and 37 seconds.
England came alive in the second half but Toby Alderweireld cleared off the line from Eric Dier. And Eden Hazard, who had been a thorn in the Three Lions’ paw all day, sealed the win late on following another flowing move.
Here, we analyse the performance of Hazard, who cemented a fine tournament with his side’s second goal.
In a game that was always going to be difficult for both teams to muster any magic after demoralising semi-final exits, Hazard was trouble for England from the off, his jinking, darting runs and laser beam balls bisecting the Three Lions time and time again.
As England looked leggy, Hazard was a live wire, never giving England’s defenders a moment’s peace. He rounded off a fine performance with a deserved goal to kill England off and earn the Red Devils their best ever World Cup finish.
Hazard warning – The third-place play-off doesn’t mean anything, right? Well, someone forgot to tell Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne that as they tormented England. They posed countless problems for a ponderous Three Lions who looked like they’d rather be anywhere else.
Had Romelu Lukaku been on the same wavelength, Belgium could have blown them away. Hazard finished with three key passes and his seven dribbles – four more than any player on the field – left England chasing shadows.
Man of the moment – Kylian Mbappe and Luka Modric will likely jostle for the World Cup’s Golden Ball, but Hazard warrants inclusion in the conversation after a scintillating summer – which wasn’t perhaps expected given his mixed club season. But he tore England to shreds here as he easily earned the man of the match award – his fourth of the tournament.
Pass accuracy – If there was one criticism to label at the Chelsea schemer it was his sloppiness in possession as he perhaps too often tried to thread the perfect ball through to a teammate. His passing accuracy of 77.2 per cent was lower only than goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois’ 60.
The preamble to this clash was that if there were going to be any fireworks, they would be sparked by Golden Boot-chasing Harry Kane and Lukaku. But the Manchester United man was wasteful – not for the first time this tournament – while Kane looked subdued.
How thankful we should be for Hazard then, who took an otherwise dour encounter and lit it up with this lively display. His Chelsea future was under scrutiny heading into the World Cup and this shimmering show to secure a place on the podium bookended a momentous month for the midfield magician. Surely one of the European giants will come calling.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
Belgium clinched third place at the World Cup as they beat England 2-0 in the third-place play-off in Saint Petersburg on Saturday.
The Red Devils made an early breakthrough as Thomas Meunier opened the scoring in the fourth minute.
Eden Hazard doubled the lead in the 82nd minute to secure Belgium’s best-ever finish at a World Cup.
Here, we rate the England players.
Jordan Pickford – Was helpless for the first goal but denied Meunier a second with a superb save in the second. His distribution let him down. 5
Phil Jones – Always seemed uncomfortable against Hazard and was made to look ordinary when the Chelsea star glided past him and scored the second. 4
John Stones – The pick of England’s defenders. Excellent on the ball and made some vital blocks. 6
Harry Maguire – Dominant in the air but had few options to work with every time he brought the ball out from defence. 5
Eric Dier – Had a couple of England’s best efforts with Toby Alderweireld clearing his chipped finish off the line before he put a decent header wide. 6
Kieran Trippier – His delivery was exquisite again and should’ve produced one goal at least. Six key passes in this encounter. 6
Ruben Loftus-Cheek – Flashes of brilliance from the young midfielder but nothing concrete. A couple of good runs and a looping header straight at Thibaut Courtois. 5
Fabian Delph – Worked hard and slotted in well both in midfield during the first half and at left-wingback in the second. 5
Danny Rose – Caught napping as he failed to track Meunier’s run to the back post for the opener. He let the right-wingback in on another occasion as well and was hooked at half-time. 3
Harry Kane – Looked well off the pace again and a shadow of the fearsome striker he can be. Was caught on his heels as a few decent deliveries passed him by. Incredibly, he’ll probably win the Golden Boot. 3
Raheem Sterling – Tried to make inroads by running at the defence but often wound up losing possession. Teed up Kane on one occasion but the striker shot wide. 5
Marcus Rashford – Didn’t have the desired impact as his decision-making was disappointing. 4
Jesse Lingard – Injected a little zip into England’s passing initially before slumping into the ponderous tempo along with the others. 5
Dele Alli – Came on in the closing stages and didn’t see much of the ball. N/A