England 2-1 Belgium
Mason Mount’s freakish second-half effort proved the matchwinner as England beat the world’s top-ranked side in the Nations League at Wembley. They now sit top of the group thanks to the result.
With barely 15 minutes played, Yannick Carrasco had seen his early goal chalked off because of a marginal offside, and Belgium had just earned a penalty. It was Romelu Lukaku’s incredible strength and speed that drew the challenge from Eric Dier. He wasn’t about to go and waste it. Sending Jordan Pickford the wrong way — back in the side after Nick Pope played on Thursday — the former Manchester United striker opened the scoring. England looked a long way off Roberto Martínez’s titans in terms of invention, control and tempo at this stage.
However, Gareth Southgate’s side equalised against the run of play through Marcus Rashford’s well-struck penalty. Was Jordan Henderson playacting when he fell to the floor in the box like a wounded warrior? Yes. Was it still a penalty, regardless? You’d have to say it was. In Harry Kane’s absence from the start due to a slight muscle strain, Rashford stepped up to hammer England level.
That brought to an end a half of football where possession swung like a pendulum. Make no mistake, Belgium had had the better of it. But England were more focused in their pressing, more resolute in their defending, and more compact in their shape off the ball when play resumed. And, in fortuitous fashion, they made it count — Mason Mount’s winning goal looping up off the foot of Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld and beating the stranded Simon Mignolet in goal.
It was the way in which England held out for victory that was most pleasing about this hard day’s work. All the way from the excellent Kieran Trippier on the left, to the surprise substitute, 20-year-old Reece James on the right, England were smart in their press and even smarter in their pass selection.
This was like watching a total role reversal. In the first 45, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Declan Rice and Rashford could be seen holding onto the ball and desperately waiting to see options ahead of them make themselves known. Rarely did they appear. For Belgium they did. But it only took the half-time period for the Belgians to assume the more stumped roles, like chess players without anywhere meaningful to go. England did have places to go, players willing to take the ball there, and the ability to re-establish defensive shape at the flick of a switch if ever possession was lost. It rarely was. Chequemate.
For Belgium, this result is a kick in the teeth. England’s competitive record at Wembley is exceptional — having failed to win just once in their past 21 matches. However, the world’s number one-ranked side don’t lose very often, full stop — never mind in competitive home fixtures. For Martínez this was only a fourth defeat in 47 matches at the helm.
Earning his much-awaited 50th England cap, Kyle Walker put in a brilliant display on the right side of a back-three, which is where he was deployed at the 2018 World Cup. Trippier, a fellow right-back by trade, looked a misfit when played out of position on the left in the last international break. Yet here he was aggressive, mobile and much less inclined than last month to pick the safe option and pass back to the defenders. These were England’s standout performers, but Rashford was an outlet whichever wing he was on, Mount pressured Belgium energetically, and Jordan Henderson and Rice broke up play to good effect.
As England prepare to face Denmark, another impressive side, on Wednesday, they might be wary that this wasn’t the finished display. It wasn’t won perfectly, and it wasn’t won fraudulently. The reality — as is so often the case — lies blurred somewhere in the middle.
In a match where Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku were the two best players on the pitch, and by some distance, England saw off the best team in the world by coming from behind to win. And they did it by using four right-backs. It’s a step in the right direction; a statement. With the return trip to Brussels fast approaching next month, it really needed to be.
Photo Credits: Getty Images