A curious night for England, although it did provide clarity in one sense: Gareth Southgate’s side are out of contention for the Nations League, after Belgium secured control of the group with a 2-0 win. Roberto Martinez rectified last month’s defeat at Wembley.
The oddity was that England probably played better in this game than they did in that win. There was a bit more about them, and particularly to Jack Grealish. Another excellent display – especially when able to move into the centre more in the second half – emphasised why he now has to start much more regularly for Southgate.
One of a few questions was why he started in a position that was not his best, but that was reflective of a few players.
Within that, Southgate could fairly lament the relatively freakish nature of both of Belgium’s goals.
The first involved a deflection from distance, of the type that can happen in any situation – especially when you have players like Kevin De Bruyne and Youri Tielemans on the pitch. They are capable of letting fly, as the Leicester City midfielder did here.
After Romelu Lukaku again linked the play so well, Tielemens found the net, but only after the ball diverted off Tyrone Mings’ leg.
The second was meanwhile just a fine set-piece, although one that probably shouldn’t have been given. You could even say Dries Mertens was much more accurate than the officials. His free-kick was perfection, giving Jordan Pickford no chance as it was curled into the corner.
Even in this spell, when Belgium effectively won the game, they weren’t exactly creating much or having much of the play. England enjoyed more of the ball and the better chances from constructed football, especially in the second half.
The counter-point to this is that it maybe showed Southgate’s formation was right, but some of the personnel was wrong. It certainly seemed unnecessarily cautious to start with six defensive players. That can serve to invite pressure and cede possession, as happened for the first goal. Eric Dier’s pass was just poor.
The structure did give England a hold on the game, though, and the platform from which to play forward.
With Kane dropping back to create, that can still work well when he has fast wide forwards running off him. That was not the case here, however. Mason Mount and Grealish are both fine attacking midfielders who can evidently play together, but running in behind is not their natural game. In the first half, it meant England had no outlet.
In the second half, it was no surprise that both started to look much more dangerous when the two were on the ball – looking to create – in front of the amassed defence.
More and more of the game increasingly went through Grealish. It wasn’t long until he was taking command, for his third international match in a row. For the second match in a row, meanwhile, he offered the moment of the game. This time it was a divine touch on the turn on 77 minutes.
It just went nowhere, though, as Kane’s cross was deflected over the bar.
While this period was encouraging for England, there was an inevitable question over whether it was Southgate’s side forcing the issue or Belgium being prepared to sit back because they were comfortable and confident in their 2-0 lead.
The lack of genuine chances suggested the latter.
So to Wednesday, and a game against Iceland that might not have taken place, and now has even less reason to be played.
Southgate will no doubt use it to try and find more clarity for this team. One thing seems crystal clear: Grealish is now one of his best players.
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