What feels like another bad England defeat but isn’t?
As Gareth Southgate and his players reconcile themselves with mid-table mediocrity in Nations League Group A2, it is tempting to say that this 2-0 defeat against the No 1-ranked team in international football showed how far they have to travel before they can be considered major tournament contenders.
But that, strangely, was a more fitting post-match reaction when they beat that same No 1-ranked team in international football at Wembley a month ago. Belgium were the better side that day – and by some distance in the first half – but a penalty and a deflected goal produced an unlikely England comeback to deliver all three points.
In Leuven, the shoe was on the other foot. Youri Tielemans’ opening goal took two deflections and was pushed onto the post by Jordan Pickford before trickling over the goal-line. Belgium’s second through Dries Mertens was from a free-kick and a contentious one, at that.
Apart from that, England were the more productive side in attack and largely comfortable in defence. Belgium did not offer much beyond the two fortunate bounces of the ball which put them ahead. They didn’t need to, of course – and there are still plenty of criticisms to make of England’s performance – but Southgate’s side were far from outclassed.
It is always difficult to look beyond a scoreline and at an overall performance and perhaps even more so with England, who have made strides under Southgate but are still waiting to truly convince. Win, lose or draw, there are some encouraging signs and some less encouraging signs.
When Belgium went 2-0 up early on, the most common complaint was that Southgate had picked a side which lacked pace to play off Harry Kane and run in behind Belgium’s defence. It was a fair observation and the lightning rod for much of the criticism – as he tends to be these days – was Mason Mount.
Even after the manufactured rivalry with Jack Grealish was quashed by both players last week, the conversation on Mount still veers from one extreme to the other. The Chelsea midfielder is a scapegoat according to some, a ‘teacher’s pet’ to others. In reality, he is just a young player who excels at some things and has room to improve at others.
Mount is not particularly quick or creative and only chips in with goals every so often, but he is excellent out of possession and harried Belgium’s defence brilliantly during his 70 minutes on the pitch. If the plan was to create openings through pressing situations – as England did on several occasions – then starting him made sense.
The new-fangled 3-4-3 formation has its critics too. A similar system produced three goals from open play in seven games at the World Cup and two goals of any kind in the four games since its return is a worry, but using it away to the best international side in the world was a reasonable decision and Southgate was pleased with how it largely limited Belgium to shots from range.
That is not to entirely absolve the England manager, though. If there is one consistent criticism that can be made of him, it is that his in-game management leaves something to be desired. That was the case against Croatia in that World Cup semi-final and here, facing elimination from another tournament, Southgate again made a couple of questionable decisions.
Selecting Mount to start was justifiable. Keeping him on the pitch when England were already 2-0 down, dominating possession but requiring greater threat on the ball, less so. Jadon Sancho felt like the obvious replacement at half-time – perhaps even earlier – but he stayed sat among the substitutes until the 70th minute.
When he eventually was introduced, it was for Kieran Trippier. Despite naming five right-backs in the initial squad, and though either Kyle Walker or Ainsley Maitland-Niles could have taken up that role, Southgate played Sancho there for the final 20 minutes. Dominic Calvert-Lewin took Mount’s place in the front three instead, playing to Kane’s right.
It did not feel like the optimal use of one of the most talented young wide players in European football or one of the most in-form strikers in the Premier League. Neither of those changes made England’s attack more effective. If anything, Belgium had the better chances during the closing stages, with Romelu Lukaku going close to making it 3-0.
That would have been a grossly unfair scoreline. 2-0 wasn’t much better to be honest, but over the course of the two games against Belgium, you at least have an accurate illustration of where England currently are. They have played the highest-ranked side in the world even, winning one and losing the other. The difference each time has been luck – a deflection or a decision going one way or the other.
The lack of goals since switching systems is a concern and Southgate’s curious in-game management is a recurring issue. But in the same way that beating Belgium at Wembley was not worth getting over-excited about, losing in Leuven is not worth recrimination either. England remain what they have been for some time: a team who can compete with any side at the very top of the international game, but one that has a lot of work to do in order to move ahead of the pack.