England suffered their first defeat at this World Cup against Belgium on Thursday night, but in truth that loss faded in the memory almost as soon as the sun came up the next day. In what was a surreal scenario, this was something of a dead rubber for both sides, with their passage into the tournament’s last 16 already secured. Even weirder was the scenario that a defeat might have been more beneficial than a win.
Indeed, had England won or even drawn their final group game, finishing top of their section, they would have fallen into the side of the bracket that also featured Argentina, Brazil and France. As it eventually materialised, defeat sent England into the side of the draw that contained Croatia and Spain. There is a stronger and a weaker side and England might just have lucked out.
Of course, this doesn’t mean England will have ti easy. In the round of 16, they will come up against a Colombia side who can cause any opposition team damage on their day. James Rodriguez might be an injury doubt for the fixture, but the South Americans boast a number of top class players who will need to be watched.
Until now, Gareth Southgate has opted for a back three. Those three central defenders are flanked by wing backs, Ashley Young on the left and Kieran Trippier on the right. This has provided the foundation for a positive start to their World Cup campaign. There’s not much reason to change.
However, it should be noted that England have failed to keep a clean sheet in Russia this summer. Of course, the goal conceded to Belgium should be written off given the circumstances, but even against Tunisia and Panama, opponents of a much lower calibre, England leaked a goal.
In the first group game against Tunisia, this was a direct result of the back three. Kyle Walker was caught in a position that he ordinarily wouldn’t have found himself in. Walker is naturally a full back, but has been used as a right-sided central defender by Southgate at this World Cup. That has its benefits, largely in possession, but it also has its drawbacks.
Then there was the goal conceded against Panama, which saw the England defence neglect their duties from a set piece, allowing Felipe Baloy to make an unmarked run into the box. England won’t be able to make such mistakes against Colombia. They have players who will punish them to an even greater extent.
There is space between Walker and centre backs Harry Maguire and John Stones for the likes of Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado to exploit. But should England pass this test it would say a lot about their chances at this summer’s World Cup. For good or bad, this match will define England’s tournament.
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