Shortly before half-time at the King Power at Den Dreef Stadium, Harry Kane could be seen scooting back into his own half to take the ball. Ten seconds later he was kicked heavily on an ankle driving through the centre circle. Ten seconds after that Kane was in an inverted left-winger role, cutting in to fire a cross-shot against the lunge of Jason Denayer.
Throughout this sequence, a triptych of deep-midfield-Kane, playmaker-Kane and winger-Kane, it was hard not to long for another Kane: the ghost Kane, saving his spring, doing No 9-type things; and not forced to become Kane cubed, both pointlessly ever-present and depressingly dilute.
This was Kane’s 50th England appearance. Perhaps the FA will do the decent thing and award England’s captain his 51st and 52nd caps too, after a night in the Leuven suburbs where he ended up playing three simultaneous roles in a vain attempt to restore balance to an underpowered, bizarrely configured attack.
Gareth Southgate had injuries and fatigue to contend with here. The speed of Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford, both unavailable, might have shifted the gravity of this game. Instead it took 45 minutes of competitive football for a team of mismatched England players to finally get some traction from a speed-free front three.
This is not to criticise the other England front players. Jack Grealish was England’s best performer. Mason Mount is a fine, intelligent midfielder. But this was not a balanced or effective mix of skills, with nobody stretching the opposition to make space for clever passes. Instead England settled down to eat their dinner with three forks, no knife and no spoon.
There has been a feeling around this England team that Southgate was unduly spooked by the mild defensive leakiness of last year, abandoning the dressier 4-3-3 and slipping back into the comfortable pyjamas of a deep midfield double pivot.
This is how England will try to win tournament games in future. Take the game deep. Attack sparingly, but with precision. It is a sensible approach, and one that mirrors the current world and European champions But it is also a question of degree, and of balance. Another point worth noting: Kane actually hasn’t scored in five games this year, a run that coincides with the more cautious, double-bolted England style.
Here Southgate maxed out his fetish for defensive players, picking six of them plus a goalkeeper at the start. The goalscoring burden on Kane was profound. The second highest goalscorer in this England XI was Eric Dier, with three. Kane also walked out as England’s most established creator, raising the immediate prospect of Kane dropping deep to play off Kane, Kane linking neatly with Kane, the Kane-Kane partnership showing a telepathic understanding.
Early on England’s defensive shape was clear. Out of possession Kane, Grealish and Mount sat in a front three, with Grealish to the left. But England had an obvious problem. The red shirts were happy to push up high from the back, reassured that nobody in this uniquely one-paced England attack was likely to hare away from the halfway line and eat up those empty green spaces. It was from this condensing of space that the opening goal came with 10 minutes gone. Dier played a horrible pass forward out of defence. The ball was stolen by a high-pressing red line, then fed on to Youri Tielemans. His shot was hard, low, deflected and never going anywhere but the bottom corner.
Kane was unlucky not to equalise two minutes later, his fine header from Kieran Trippier’s corner headed off the line by Romelu Lukaku. Time and again he popped up in midfield to play nice little passing combinations. England didn’t need him there. Kane in midfield is Kane not up front; and as a consequence, nobody up front.
Belgium were 2-0 up before long, Dries Mertens curling in a lovely free kick. England meandered on. Kane put a fine cross, but Kane wasn’t there to either head it goalwards, or nod it down to a waiting Kane, who wasn’t, in any case, waiting. Kane looked disappointed.
And by the half-hour mark Kane had made 16 passes, which is, frankly, too many passes. Every pass is a moment Harry Kane is not receiving the ball, which in this lineup was a blot, a dead end.
England improved markedly in the second half, although by then the game was already gone. If the attack found a greater sense of urgency this was more or less down to Grealish, who ran like a dervish. But England were undone by the lack of zip in their own forward line in the that first half.
A note on goalscoring. Mertens got his 22nd for Belgium here. Kevin De Bruyne has 19. Romelu Lukaku has an astonishing 55 in 88 games. To be clear on that, Lukaku would right now be England’s all-time leading goalscorer, aged 27 and at a lightning strike rate. Kane is a fine player, as are the supporting cast in England’s attack today. But this was a blank, and a chance thrown away.
It is to be hoped Southgate will learn from this, will ease his iron grip a little.
He has presented his own paradox during his time in charge. Here is an England manager who keeps selecting youthful attacking talent, to an almost reckless degree – all the while putting out a succession of weirdly stodgy and defensive-minded teams.
England came to Belgium looking to groove a method to beat the better teams. They found a way to lose here.