Gareth Southgate insisted England could draw encouragement from their display against Belgium and the performance of Jack Grealish, despite their interest in this season’s Nations League ending with a 2-0 defeat in Leuven.
The Aston Villa playmaker shone against the number one ranked team in the world and England controlled much of the contest, albeit while lacking a cutting edge throughout. First half goals from Youri Tielemans and Dries Mertens, the first with a deflected shot and the second from a dubiously awarded free-kick, condemned England to a defeat that ensured they cannot qualify from their group for the Nations League finals.
“We’re always disappointed to lose and to lose tonight puts us out of the competition but I’ve got to balance that because I have to focus on performances,” said the England manager. “A performance like that wins you more games than you lose. We were better than we were [in the win] at Wembley, we created more opportunities and had more of the ball. Two moments in the game were turning points – a deflection for the first goal and the second I don’t think was a free kick. There were a few times when we didn’t find the final pass or get the shot away but in a game of the highest level we had more chances than we did at Wembley and our attacking play was better than it was at Wembley.
“We’ve shown we can compete. There wasn’t much between ourselves and Belgium. We haven’t got what we deserved in the last two games but there are fine margins in international football.”
Grealish was highly impressive on his first competitive start for England. “He had an absolutely outstanding game,” added Southgate. “Jack has really impressed us with his approach. Since he came in he’s been curious about what we are looking for from him and he has taken it into training and tonight he has taken his club form into a game against one of the top international teams in the world. He stood up to as tough an opponent as you are going to face.”
England suffered injury problems before and during the game. Raheem Sterling was absent with a calf problem, Ben Chilwell was substituted after 38 minutes with a back problem and the Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson was withdrawn at half-time after reporting tightness in a muscle. Southgate was unable to confirm whether Henderson’s injury was a hamstring. He will be assessed on Monday.
The manager himself confirmed he contracted Covid-19 last month. Southgate said: “I did have the virus but I was fortunate. It was not as serious as so many people in our country. It was not pleasant but it is all fine now.”