Defeat to Belgium has ended England’s chances of reaching the finals of this edition of the Uefa Nations League. Though Gareth Southgate’s side were far from poor in this contest, they dominated the second half and Belgium were hardly deserving of the two-goal victory.
Nevertheless that is what the top sides have: a clinical edge, and England didn’t possess one here. A deflected Youri Tielemans strike and a Dries Mertens free-kick gave the home side a two-goal lead in the first half but despite plentiful possession England were unable to create a clear chance.
England lack clinical edge
Despite a solid first half showing and an improved display in the second half, England were unable to test Thibaut Courtois in the Belgium goal. For the good work that was being done in defence and midfield, the visitors couldn’t muster much in the final third.
From first glance at the starting XI, it was obvious that England were missing an attacking dimension. Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford were absent through injury and Jadon Sancho started on the bench having played 90 minutes against Ireland three days prior. That is a lot of counterattacking pace to be missing. What’s more, that’s a lot of goals to be missing.
For all of Harry Kane’s industrious work on his 50th appearance for England, he struggled to have an impact. Whenever the ball reached the Belgium area, it seemed to rebound back to the midfield and rarely went close to goal. Also the lack of counterattacking threat meant that Belgium could press high in the first half, which is how they won back the ball and scored the opener.
Grealish the one-man show
The one bright spark, in an attacking sense, for England was Jack Grealish who played as he always does: with enjoyment. Jigging around the field, drawing fouls, drifting past defenders and taking England’s few shots at goal. There was one flick in particular with his heel that took the ball over the head of Thomas Meunier and allowed the Aston Villa attacker to glide up-field. It was spectacular skill.
“I could not speak highly enough of his performance,” Southgate said of Grealish’s evenings work. It seems that the England manager is now fully converted and the player is at the forefront of his mind with only a handful of games before the European Championship starts next June.
However, it was difficult to not get the sense that this became a one-man show, especially in the second half when England were allowed much of the ball and a large portion of the creative expectation lay on Grealish’s shoulders. A national team can often orbit around one standout player - Portugal and Ronaldo or Argentina and Lionel Messi - but that goes against what Southgate is trying to achieve with England. At least he can take solace that Bukayo Saka also impressed alongside Grealish, but there needs to be a more even spread creatively.
This defeat will only add fuel to the fire of discussion surrounding Southgate’s set-up decisions. During these autumn Nations League games, England have only scored three goals across the five games played. There is a legitimate argument that the 3-4-3 which Southgate is persisting with is stifling England’s creativity in the final third and consequently the goalscoring.
The back-five setup was integral to England’s run to the semi finals of the World Cup in 2018 and at face value appears appropriate for a team with plenty of good centre-backs but sorely lacks an outstanding pair. But in the background is that evening in Sevilla two years ago when England beat Spain playing sublime football with a 4-3-3 and is regarded as one of the best performances of the national team for many a year.
There is more versatility to a 4-3-3 and allows more creative and attacking licence to the star players of this current generation: Rashford, Kane, Sterling and Sancho. It also presents a more logical setup if trying to accommodate Grealish as he prefers playing as a No 8 or a No 10 and driving forward centrally with the ball. It is unlikely that Southgate will now move away from the 3-4-3 but at what attacking cost will sticking with a back-five come. It’s a debate that will no doubt continue.
Belgium keep it simple
To say that Belgium, the No 1 ranked nation, provided England with a lesson is maybe going a touch too far. The home side barely ventured out of their own half in the second period and allowed England to mount attacks and dominate possession. Possibly they knew already that their opponents were lacking something in forward areas and were more than comfortable in holding their own against a blunt attack.
Roberto Martinez’s side’s two goals were a little fortuitous; Tielemans’ strike flicked off both Tyrone Mings and Declan Rice before going in to Jordan Pickford’s net off the post, then the free-kick which Mertens converted was awarded despite Rice getting the ball from Kevin De Bruyne - both were soft goals.
It would have been interesting to see how the game progressed had Belgium not suddenly found themselves two goals ahead midway through the first half. What the hosts did was manage the game out quite unspectacularly from there with only the odd De Bruyne pass reminding those watching on that they are the No 1 national team in the world.