Belgium 5-2 Tunisia: As loaded as Belgium is, they did not play their best in the win vs. Panama. In this game, they looked to get midfielders Eden Hazard and Kevin DeBruyne more involved in attack in a surprisingly adventuresome 3-4-3 formation. Tunisia plays the same formation, with a backline that plays surprisingly high. Belgium look to take advantage of this early by sending numbers forward and running at Tunisia’s backline, forcing a mistake at an inopportune time. It worked; Tunisia gave up an early penalty, which Hazard buried. Tunisia looked to close down the ball and run the ball down the flanks. Belgium’s talisman, Hazard, looked to get the ball in the box with his back to the goal; he was actually more of the target man than the man up top, Romelu Lukaku. Because of the early Belgian goal, Tunisia had to open up their attack and stretch themselves out, pressing and closing down even more to get control of the ball and go on the counter. Belgium is not the team you want to do that against. It was obvious early on that Tunisia’s high 3-man backline was just not going to work. Belgium ran at it all day, intercepted the Tunisian attack in midfield, then quickly counterattacked when Tunisia left all kinds of space for Lukaku to take advantage of. Witness the second goal, by Lukaku.
Tunisia got a lifeline two minutes after the Lukaku goal on, what else, a set piece, by Dylan Bronn. Tunisia had chances to tie the game, but playing numbers forward and leaving their backline exposed led to way too many counterattacks by Belgium. Lukaku took advantage with a finish just before halftime, and Hazard did the same early in the second half. Tunisia was clearly going to go down playing their game which wasn’t working, instead of making any adjustments. Belgium should have scored more, but Ben Mustapha came up big, keeping several shots on target by Michy Batshuayi out in a losing effort. He couldn’t keep one out, though, scored by Batshuayi in stoppage time. More than the victory, the +6 goal differential will figure heavily in Belgium’s final group fixture against England.
England 6-1 Panana: The focus for England was to get the ball out on the wings with an attacking 3-1-4-2 formation, creating space for flankers Ashley Young and Kieren Trippier to make runs going forward and get the ball into their primary scorer Harry Kane, but they were going to need more from Raheem Sterling in front of goal. Panama were going to maintain a low block 4-5-1 formation, looking to play deep and conservative to try to thwart the England attack. Center midfielder Gabriel Gomez was the center of attack, lying deep for Panama. Set piece service was problematic for Panama, but given how conservative they played and how they sat back and let the game come to them, they were going to rely on set pieces after quick counters without numbers. A bigger issue for Panama was their lack of finishing. Panama was intent on not letting Kane get on the end of long service into the box; problem was on a set piece they didn’t focus on others, which is why John Stones got loose in the box on a corner and headed in a gem in the 8th minute. After getting down early, Panama started making desperate mistakes, committing a foul in the box on Jesse Lingard that led to a Kane penalty. I liked the movement of center midfielder Jesse Lingard, whose position is center midfielder but played with a lot more freedom from sideline to sideline finding space anywhere he could to receive the ball and get it into the box. Panama were 6’s and 7’s in the back, especially on set pieces, as evinced by the Stones goal in the 40th minute, and the Kane penalty in the 45th minute.
England played a surprisingly high backline given the score, so on occasion Panama actually did show some quality getting into the final third, so it’s not like they were entirely toothless. I can understand why the Three Lions stayed on the gas; they wanted to make up the goal differential in their final fixture with Belgium. England’s backline didn’t let up, either, wanting to keep a clean sheet. So they weren’t happy about giving up a late goal to Panama in the 78th minute; it complicated their game against Belgium in case of a tie. Clearly England made its most effective thrusts forward on the right side with Trippier; you’d think Panama would have figured that out at some point. Harry Kane becomes the first England player since Gary Lineker in 1986 to score a hat trick in the World Cup. Panama is out in spectacular fashion.
Japan 2-2 Senegal: Two surprise leaders of Group H, this promised to be a track meet. Japan looked to play a technical, possession-based 4-5-1, moving the ball around and probing for space to get the ball to target man Yuya Osako, who held the ball up in the box for trailing talisman Shinji Kagawa. Nigerian target man M’Baye Niang got a lot of help in the box from a 4-3-3 formation that sent a lot of speedy, powerful players forward through the middle, and relied heavily on winger Sadio Mané to take the ball from the left to the center, while being very physical in the back. Senegal was physically more powerful and very direct going forward, but Japan could match them in speed and quickness. As expected, Mané was in the right place at the right time to put a bad clearance from Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima back in the net. Senegal was really putting pressure all other the pitch on Japan, forcing Japan to bring their attacking players back in defensive support. Japan caught Senegal ball-watching on occasion, spreading the ball out on the flanks going forward, making overlapping diagonal runs into space both on and off the ball, which caused Japan to finally brake through in the 34th minute on a Takashi Inui from the left flank.
In the second half, Senegal did a better job of switching play from side to side and organizing their attack, as evinced by their goal in the 71st minute by winger Moussa Wagué. Japan’s best attack came down the right flank by winger Hiroki Sakai to flanker Genki Haraguchi. After Japan replaced Shinji Kagawa with substitute talisman Keisuke Honda, Honda made his presence felt in the 78th minute when a confused and chaotic clearance from Senegalese goalkeeper Khadim N’Diaye led to a Honda one-timer. Gotta give it to Japan; they stood up to the physical play by Senegal and the game never devolved into a street fight. Great effort by both teams, who I’m sure feel like they just kissed their sister.
Poland 0-3 Colombia: This game was simple for both teams: Get the ball to their finishers up front. Poland employed an attacking 3-4-3 formation, looking for center creator Grzegorz Krychowiak to link up with Piotr Zielinski and Robert Lewandowski in the box, who is not the kind of striker who can create his own shot and needs service and crosses. For Poland and their 4-2-3-1 formation, their approach was to get the ball out on the feet of their left flank talisman James Rodriguez, the leading scorer in the 2014 World Cup, and let him bring the ball into the box for Radamel Falcao to finish, with Juan Cuadrado and Juan Quintero trailing in. This was a fast-paced game; less time spent in the middle third than you would have thought. Both teams played with a sense of urgency given their unexpected losses in their openers. The unfortunate byproduct of this urgency was that things got chippy and physical, as evinced by the number of injuries. Falcao was getting crosses, but more times than not he was taking on three center-backs all by himself; Cuadrado and Quintero weren’t giving him the trailing help he needed.
Colombia took a more long approach to getting forward, mostly down the right flank with Curadrado. Poland were are little more direct with their passing through the center with Krychowiak, but they just weren’t developing an offensive rhythm, just way too disjointed and unorganized. Surprised by how little thrusts forward Poland got from their wingers Maciej Rybus and Bartosz Bereszynski considering they only had a three-man backline. Yerry Mina used his height and hops in beautiful use on a set piece cross from, who else, James Rodriguez. At some point the Polish side was going to let somebody get behind them as they sent numbers forward to try to get back in the game. It happened in the 71st minute by Falcao, and it happened again in the 75th minute when Cuadrado finished a filthy pass by Rodriguez. Lewandowski was just handcuffed all day by Colombia’s center backs Mina and Davinson Sánchez. Stick a fork in Poland; they are DONE!