Clinical Belgium Too Efficient for Wasteful England

Getty Images/Dean Mouhtaropoulos

Belgium 2-0 England

Belgium all but secured a place in next year’s Nations League finals with a business-like win over England in Leuven. Possession was largely the visitors, but they couldn’t take their chances after succumbing to two early goals.

It was one of football’s strangest stadium music choices. No sooner had the Belgian national anthem ended than Gala’s Freed from Desire was reverberating around the Den Dreef. “Freedom and love — what he’s looking for…”. Indeed, that’s what Jack Grealish has been looking for from Gareth Southgate since the manager first brought him into the England senior fold. Tonight, he got it. Southgate gave him freedom to express himself. The love followed, social media becoming a hive of Grealish appreciation. A starting berth out wide in a competitive match for the first time. The world’s best side, away — supposedly the toughest competition match there is. He did his case for more regular starts no harm at all.

Southgate told EnglandFootball.org this week that “there is benefit to working with the [3-4-3] system and improving it.” It certainly needed improvement here. The extra defender at the back wasn’t needed once — England controlled in possession practically throughout. Even when Belgium sprang a counter, two centre-halves would have coped just fine in most instances. England have been defensively solid under their new formation, having conceded only penalties since adopting it seven matches ago. However, their attacking impetus has lost its cutting edge; the midfield link between attack and defence looks to have been sacrificed.

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Belgium earned their opener through a familiar route — the bullish yet often so intricate Romelu Lukaku dragging numerous England men to the ball, before teeing up Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans to fire in from range. His shot was fierce and troublesome, and a slight nick off Tyrone Mings only made it harder for Jordan Pickford to reach. Via the post, it found the bottom corner. The hosts ahead with the opening ten minutes not yet up.

England flung themselves forward straight away, almost equalising immediately through Grealish’s blocked shot and then Harry Kane’s header — kept out only by a miraculous goal-line clearance by his opposite number Lukaku. Kane was earning his 50th England cap on the night, lauded in the days building up to this fixture for his phenomenal international strike-rate, having notched 32 goals in his first 49 outings. But while Kane isn’t the world’s best striker, he can certainly lay a claim to being the most complete. It was all the parts to his game that don’t involve goal-scoring that were exhibited so impressively during cap number 50.

When England had finished not putting their chances to bed, Belgium took an almighty step to putting the game to bed. Kevin de Bruyne leaned over a close-range free kick ominously, but when Dries Mertens — born in Leuven — stepped up casually to guide the ball home instead, Belgium’s embarrassment of riches in the attacking third had been underlined quite emphatically. As it happens, Declan Rice had actually won the ball in the exchange that ‘earned’ Belgium the free kick. A nod to elite-level referees everywhere that incorrect calls change football matches.

The tireless and selfless Kane bent the kind of cross into the area he’d have duly loved to be attacking himself — and that epitomised a problem that Southgate’s cultured and technically gifted side have often encountered and did again here. England’s wingers and wing-backs can and do cut inside and run at the opposition, but every once in a while a delivery into the box is called for. Those that did make it in were either Ben Chilwell’s or — once the Chelsea man came off injured — his replacement Bukayo Saka’s. Every single one that wasn’t blocked was simply gathered by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

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Try as they might, England couldn’t quite create that one clear-cut chance that would have halved the deficit. The half-time swap of Harry Winks on for Jordan Henderson did nothing. A waste of a substitution in a game where England were tiring themselves out trying to cut through the Belgians’ excellent press. The introduction of Dominic Calvert-Lewin as a second focal point up front looked another questionable change of personnel from the England boss. With 21 minutes still to play, it reeked of desperation.

Visitors England pushed harder for their first of the night, but this only widened the area of the pitch with which Roberto Martínez’s world number ones could counter-attack if they ever did pinch the ball. When they did, Lukaku had two chances to add a goal to another fabulous hold-up display against England. Pickford saved well with the first; Lukaku shot just wide with the second.

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England parked themselves around the 18-yard box as the encounter grew older and older. So close to goal and yet so far from actually scoring one. To Southgate, for whom the 3-4-3 system was purely introduced to shore up defensively in heavyweight clashes like this, defeat to Belgium in such a manner will come as a bitter blow.

This was a performance of heart and of courage, but there are no gongs for simply playing well. Belgium were always going to win the game once the scoreboard ticked over from 1-0 to two. Due to Denmark’s better head-to-head record, the Three Lions will now finish their group in third place above only lowly Iceland. They’ve also scored only three goals in five matches in the competition — two of them penalties. That’s a far cry from the free-scoring England of 2019.

My love has got no money; he’s got his strong beliefs…”. Strong they clearly are, but might it be time to leave 3-4-3 behind, Gareth?

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