Senegal 0-1 Colombia: Senegal went with a safe 4-4-2 that played like a 4-2-2-2, with Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate providing cover for the backline, the creative talisman Sadio Mane on the left and speedy Ismaila Sarr getting deep in the right, Mbaye Niang the target man up front partnering with Keita Balde, who was expected to finish. Columbia played a 4-2-3-1 that played like a 4-5-1 when they needed to send numbers forward. The creative force coming in from the left was James Rodriguez, but Juan Cuadrado was expected to make attacking runs from the right, with Ramadel Falcao holding up play for false-9 Juan Quintero trailing in. When Senegal had the ball in the final third, Mane, Niang, and Balde rotated throughout.
Colombia took a little time to get into their rhythm, which is short, crisp passes in the center. Senegal coach Aliou Cisse wanted his player to be creative with the ball on their feet. When Rodriguez went out with an injury in the 34th minute, the Colombian attack seemed to stall, like they were stuck in second gear, never finding that extra gear. Senegal was really organized, picking balls off in the midfield. At around the 60th minute Columbia got some inspired attacking from Quintero, who took on the talisman role with Rodriguez out, and Cuadrado got on the ball and into the box more effectively. Falcao just wasn’t getting the ball in the box much, shut down as he was by the Senegalese backline. A Yerry Mina header on a corner was the difference in this game in the 74th minute.
Needless to say, as soon as there was a score, Senegal sent numbers forward in an attempt to get on the board. Mane made several forays into the box, but Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina was there to thwart it. Niang had a tough time getting on the end of the ball, so he was replaced late by Diafra Sakho. Senegal was level on points, goals, and goal differential with Japan at the end, but Senegal gets eliminated on the new fair play rule. FIFA needs to find a better tiebreaker than who has the least yellow cards.
Japan 0-1 Poland: Japan used a hybrid 4-5-1 that morphed into a 4-4-2 with two major changes; Yoshinori Muto was the starting target man up front holding the ball up for Shinji Okazaki joining him up top in a false-9 role. No real midfielder creator, so the wingers Takashi Usami and Gotoku Sakai were expected to bring the ball forward on the flanks. Poland, already eliminated from the tournament and with nothing to lose, experimented with an attacking 3-4-3, with deep-lying playmaker Grzegorz Krychowiak roaming from the center linking up with forwards Kamil Grosicki and Piotr Zielinski, trying to get striker Robert Lewandowski the service and help in the box he just hadn’t been getting. Japan was composed and sound on the ball, they keep the ball very well and have a fine balance; if someone goes forward, someone covers them. Japan was smart enough to let Lewandowski have just a little space, because they knew if they got a body on him he has the size and strength and turn and get a trailing player to help him. Poland could not allow the game to get stretched, because that suits Japan where they can be efficient with their passing, move into areas, and before you know it they are running at your backline.
Both teams were good at transitioning back on defense when not on the ball. Japan was at their best attacking when Muto trailed back and got the ball and his flankers Usami and Sakai got forward in front of him. Except for the one goal (a set piece goal by Jan Bednarek in the 59th minute), Japan’s defense was quite disciplined in the center, not allowing Poland to get through the middle, forcing them to have to use the flanks for the most part, interrupting the Polish attack at midfield. The center of Poland’s defense, Jan Bednarek and Kamil Glik, held firm all game long, and they had to; Japan ran at the heart of it all game long. Lewandowski had a horrible tournament, never allowed to get the ball on his feet in the box; he needed help and got none. It is obvious that the way to stop as prolific a scorer as Lewandowski is to cut off his service.
England 0-1 Belgium: Lots of changes for this top-of-the-table fixture for two teams already in the knockout stage; out of 22 postions, 19 different players started from their previous group fixtures. England looked to stay on the ball and employ an attacking 3-1-4-2. Eric Dier looked to break up play in front of the back three, and England Manager Gareth Southgate wanted to see what Trent Alexander-Arnold could do on the right side servicing James Vardy and Marcus Rashford up top. Belgium likes to filter numbers centrally in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Thorgan Hazard taking his brother Eden’s spot on the left filtering inside, Moussa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini in the center given the keys to the car to make the Belgian attack run, and Youri Tielemans and Adnan Januzaj rotating up top with striker Michy Batshuayi.
Early on this game was about who could pin whose wingers back, not giving them the space to move forward. Belgium’s attack was not nearly as dynamic without Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in the engine room. Alexander-Arnold showed a lot of calmness and flair on the right with his thrusts down the flank and service into the box; at 19 he was given a lot of responsibility in this game, and he performed capably in his first World Cup. Danny Rose, on the other hand, was less effective on the left. I like what I saw from Fallaini, who made several well-timed forays into the box with the ball on his feet, putting the England back three on their heels. With this many substitution, you kinda had to figure that the tempo, flow and rhythm that we had seen from both these teams in their first two fixtures would be interrupted.
In the 51st minute, England let Belgium have a little too much possession in the final third, allowing Januzaj to pick his spot on the right side of the box for a finisher. After that, England started to get a lot of offensive buildup through the center with sideline-to-sideline midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, While Belgium started filtering their passing through the sides. Not a disappointing loss for England, and certainly not a statement win for Belgium. This would have ben a much better game if both teams still had had something to play for. But given how both teams played, you have to wonder if either can regain the momentum they had coming into this game.
Panama 1-2 Tunisia: The best game of the day turned out to be this one between two teams that had already been eliminated and had the freedom to play with no pressure. Panama came out in a 4-3-3 that played like a 4-1-4-1 when they wanted a more disciplined approach, with Gabriel Gomez providing cover for the backline, Ricardo Avila and Anibal Godey the sideline-to-sideline midfielders expected to run into space going forward, Jose Luis Rodriguez and Edgar Barcenas on the upper flanks servicing the ball inside to lone target man Gabriel Torres. Tunisia played a similar 4-3-3 formation but was a little more compact, with their crafty playmaking talisman Wahbi Khazri playing up top, rotating players in and out from sideline to sideline, so they were going to rely on movement both on and off the ball between the midfield and front players. Tunisia were on their third goalkeeper in Aymen Mathlouthi due to injuries.
Tunisia’s approach seemed to work better, passing the ball from one side to the other, moving the ball back and forth even in the final third, being patient and getting players running in and out to create opportunities (why didn’t they play like this all along?). Tunisia’s movement up front really confused the Panamanian defense. As a result, when Panama did get possession they were out of sync and there was decided lack of precision in the attack; they tried to get forward quickly but lacked an organized effort. It is of particular note that the lone goal scored by Panama was by own-goal (Yassine Meriah in the 33rd minute, although on that particular Panamanian buildup the Tunisian backline was 6’s & 7’s). To deal with the constant Tunisian movement up front, it looked like Panama was dropping five back in defense. The two attacking players that were expected to score for Tunisia – Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (in the 51st minute) and especially the striker up top Wahbi Khazri (in the 66th minute) – finally got on the board this tournament.
Both Tunisian goals were as clinical as they come, as the Panamanian backline left too many wide open spaces and did not communicate with each other. Panama did get some long passes into the attacking third in the last 25 minutes, but nothing they could get on the end of to finish. Panama finished them off with possession and tight defending in the back. It’s a shame we didn’t see this kind of attacking rhythm from Tunisia all along.