The Big Match Tactical View: England v Belgium

Gareth Southgate
How many changes will Gareth Southgate make?
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England and Belgium have identical records heading into their final group game - but do either want to top the group? Michael Cox assesses the tactics and Alan Thompson looks at the betting...

"This will be one of the very few games at this tournament contested between two sides playing a three-man defence."

England v Belgium
Thursday 19:00,
Live on ITV1

Match Odds: England 2.89/5, Belgium 3.02/1, The Draw 3.211/5.

England and Belgium meet in the final Group G match, with both sides having collected six points from their opening two matches, following wins over both Panama and Tunisia. Neither of those games provided much of a test for either side, and therefore it's still somewhat difficult to assess the quality of these sides, particularly in a defensive sense.

Who wants it more?

This should, by rights, be a nail-biting decider. The problem, though, is that neither side desperately wants to win - because that will put them on the more difficult half of the draw, and possibly on course to meet Brazil or Germany at the quarter-final stage.
With the three potential qualifiers from Group H - Senegal, Colombia and Japan - all of a similar quality, the second round isn't too much of a problem. These sides should be plotting their route further into the tournament, and finishing second would be a significant boost.

Clearly, that spells trouble. These sides can't deliberately try to lose the game, nor can they deliberately attempt to rack up more disciplinary points - which would decide first and second in the group, should this game finish a draw, as both sides have identical records until now. But both Gareth Southgate and Roberto Martinez are likely to field rotated starting XIs, with little incentive to deploy their best players.

England changes

Southgate is likely to rest those players who get through most running. Wing-backs Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier will probably give way to Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold, while Jordan Henderson has to cover a lot of midfield ground and will probably be replaced by Eric Dier.

Going forward, both Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard depend upon sprinting repeatedly and therefore will probably be rested here. Sterling's place will probably go to Marcus Rashford, who could well keep his place with a positive performance. Dele Alli shoild return after missing the Panama win, with Fabian Delph another who could play in midfield.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek is on a booking and therefore might be rested despite not starting the first game, and the same is true of Kyle Walker. Phil Jones or Gary Cahill could come in.

Some players should retain their place - Jordan Pickford, John Stones and Harry Kane seem likely to start. But this will be a largely second-string XI, for a game England don't need to win.

England Gut Smarts.png

Belgian injuries

The same is largely true of Belgium. There are supposedly injury doubts over Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens, Belgium's front three. You suspect they'd all be fit to start if this was the final, but there's little need for Martinez to take unnecessary risks. Michy Batshuayi could lead the line, with Youri Tielemans starting in an attacking midfield role.

Martinez is expected to rest Jan Vertonghen, Kevin De Bruyne and Thomas Meunier, all on a booking, while Axel Witsel is another likely to be rested. The midfield duo could be the all-Premier League partnership of Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini. At the back, Vincent Kompany has been suffering from injury in recent weeks, but Martinez might elect to introduce him here, in a game likely to be played at a slow tempo.

Tactically, it's difficult to assess many key battles without knowing how much the managers will rotate, and with the uncertainty about how much either side truly wants to win. But this will be one of the very few games at this tournament contested between two sides playing a three-man defence. Expect the wing-backs to be engaged in battle up and down the touchlines, with Belgium having a spare man against England's front two, and England probably playing three-against-three at the back. England's advantage is Eric Dier, who should find plenty of time in front of the defence.

One of the few certainties here is that, if Kane starts, he'll be desperate for a goal. Currently leading the Golden Boot standing, he could thrive against a Belgium defence featuring a couple of half-fit centre-backs. Therefore, I'll back Kane to open the scoring at 6.05/1.

The Betfair Trader's View: Alan Thompson

Both sides have already made it to the last 16 phase of the competition, there is just the small matter of who will top the group to be decided. It appears that Roberto Martinez would be more than happy for England to win the group as he has already said that he will be making potentially 10 changes to his starting 11, while Gareth Southgate has also been singing from a similar hymn sheet, although his changes probably won’t be as severe.

It’s a difficult call until we do see the team sheets but if we are to believe the rumours then you have to think that England are a decent bet at 1.75/7 to go and win the group - a draw should be enough here unless they pick up two more bookings than then Belgians. In the 90 minutes market, 2.747/4 looks attractive - assuming Southgate does only make minor changes.

Both sides have done well so far but the results have to be put into perspective; they have both only beaten Tunisia and a very poor Panama side. While they can only beat the teams that they have to face, England did concede in both games and Belgium shipped two against Tunisia.

For all the talk of 'easier' routes to the final for me you win the game that you have in front of you and then you can concentrate on the next round. Talk of swerving Germany? To be honest there has probably never been a better time to play them!

If the Belgians make all the changes they are claiming then I will be backing England @ 2.747/4 to win the game, and therefore top the group.

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