England beat Belgium but regress to familiarity of unconvincing display as doubts persist

The Three Lions ground out a famous win at Wembley without truly outplaying their high class opponents 

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Sunday 11 October 2020 19:34
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Southgate: No need to lay down the law

How exactly did that happen? Despite being outclassed for long periods, despite being fortunate to go in level at the break, despite fielding three different right-backs all at the same time, a commendable second-half resurgence was enough for England to move top of their Nations League group by beating the No 1-ranked international side in the world.

This was only Belgium’s second defeat since assuming their position at the top of Fifa’s world rankings two years ago, having previously won 16 of their 19 games since a third-place finish at the last World Cup. Romelu Lukaku’s early penalty suggested this would be one of their more routine victories against talented but ultimately inferior opposition.

Yet Marcus Rashford’s penalty, Mason Mount’s deflected strike and England’s willingness to stay in the game and not become overawed by their opponents was enough to claim an unlikely but very welcome three points. Gareth Southgate will happily accept this scoreline after the uninspiring displays away to Iceland and Denmark last month, but was this really any better? It is difficult to say.

The questions around England’s set-up persist. Southgate said earlier this week that the recent change to three-at-the-back was made in order to better reflect the talent pool at his disposal. Gaps would appear with other formations if injuries and suspensions took hold, he claimed. “We’ve had a couple of systems where, if one or two key personnel aren’t available then you are really potentially having to change tack.”

The system is not dissimilar from the one which produced England’s best finish at a major tournament in 22 years at Russia 2018, but that set-up also produced just three goals from open play in seven World Cup games and none in two meetings with Belgium at that same tournament. England appeared just as impotent at Wembley on Sunday, with no shot on Simon Mignolet’s goal - on target or otherwise - after half an hour.

Mason Mount celebrates after putting England ahead

Compare and contrast this with the fluidity and variation of Belgium’s play in the opening stages, conducted by the irrepressible Kevin De Bruyne. Yannick Carrasco saw an early goal dubiously disallowed, while the ease with which Romelu Lukaku broke away before drawing a thoughtless challenge from Eric Dier to win a penalty did not bode well. Indeed, Belgium continued to dominate.

When England drew level, it was only from the penalty spot and after a soft decision going in their favour. If Thomas Meunier had not tugged on the shoulder of Jordan Henderson but Jordao Hendersinho, certain pundits may have been tempted to describe what followed as “Latin”. As it was, the exaggerated fall was a reminder that English players are by no means above making the most of minimal contact.

If that was what it would take for England to establish a foothold in the contest, it worked. There was a significant improvement from Southgate’s side in the second half - greater aggression, better organisation - but it was not the sort which generated a glut of clear-cut chances. In fact, England were fortunate again for the decisive goal. A faint touch off Toby Alderweireld’s boot sent Mount’s strike on a trajectory that made it impossible for Mignolet to stop.

Mount scored England’s winner

It all felt strangely familiar. England’s best results during the Southgate era have come without a truly assured performance to back them up. The run to the World Cup semi-finals was littered with questions about their style and set-up, their dependence on set-pieces and the standard of opposition. The victory away in Spain during the last Nations League campaign was a game in which they were dominated and almost collapsed late on.

And here, again, they felt strangely second-best. Winning international football matches through hard work, willpower and a touch of good fortune is a handy trait to have and nothing to turn your nose up at. And yet, it would be nice to see a Southgate side truly convince against elite opposition. There are some games which you learn very little from. This felt like one of them, as many of the questions which surround England remain unanswered.

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