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Belgium 2-0 England

Tielemans (10′), Mertens (23′)

The Premier League has come to feel like the semi-spiritual home of the Belgium national team. Philippe Albert, Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen – some of the greatest names in the nation’s footballing history have called the Premier League home.

Tonight, 12 members of the home team’s matchday squad had danced to the beat of the Premier League drum, amassing 1,974 appearances in the competition between them – England players had 2,516 by comparison. Even down to the nominal details, this match seemed to be searching for an English identity. Belgium are nicknamed the Red Devils (à la Manchester United) and the game itself took place at the King Power Stadium (à la Leicester City).

Our Belgium bedfellows got the better of their adopted homeland tonight, winning 2-0 and ending England’s hopes of a second appearance at the new-fangled Nations League Finals. It was a scoreline which didn’t reflect the narrative of a match which England probably shaded in terms of quality in possession and chances created.

Gareth Southgate was always likely to field a much-changed team to the one which convincingly beat the Republic of Ireland on Friday evening. The big names returned to the starting line-up: Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson etc. Jack Grealish, however, remained.

Jordan Pickford returned in goal for England and was beaten inside nine minutes. The opening goal originated from Eric Dier’s loose pass was picked off by Belgium who swept forward. Lukaku played the ball into Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans whose shot from distance found the net via a deflection off Declan Rice.

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Initially, England responded well to going behind and looked hungry to turn a losing position into a winning one just as they had in the reverse fixture last month. They won that match via a spot-kick and a deflected goal similar to Tielemans’s tonight. But regardless of how it manifested itself, that victory was symbolic. Some of the electricity has fizzled since that raucous, free-scoring spell towards the tail end of 2019; this England side no longer seem to take to the field with their eyes aflame. Southgate has adopted a more cautious, at times overly thoughtful approach in recent months. But that Belgium win went some way to validating the manager’s convictions.

Tonight, Southgate’s men seemed to miss that unthinking brilliance which once made them so compelling. What this match lacked, at least from the England perspective, was the Premier League ideals: the freneticism, the blood and thunder, that buzzing kinetic energy. It was a continental performance rather than a full English. You couldn’t call it a classic tactical battle, but it was England who took control of the match’s strategic direction. In the final third, however, Belgium were the more clinical. England are still searching for that perfect balance.

England fell 2-0 behind just before the 25-minute mark, Dries Mertens’ free-kick spiralling into the top left corner after a spurious refereeing decision by Dutch official Danny Makkelie. The thud of his boot on the ball sounded particularly ominous in the empty stadium; a death knell for England’s Nations League hopes before the half time whistle shrilled.

They might have claimed to be the better side in that first period. But if you’re chasing a game, it seems counterintuitive on paper to replace your driving force midfielder for a metronomic ball circulator. Harry Winks came on for Jordan Henderson as England looked to wrestle their way back into the match, reinforcing perceptions about Southgate’s ostensibly negative tactical outlook in the process.

A dextrous Mason Mount flick found the boots of Harry Kane midway through the second period, but the captain was unable to convert. He flashed another one wide not long after. In the end, England finished on top in nearly every department in terms of the stats. But Belgium always seemed to have a body in the way, a second man racing back – in the end, it was just one of those nights.

Belgium

  • 1 Courtois
  • 2 Alderweireld Booked at 51mins
  • 3 Denayer
  • 5 Vertonghen
  • 15 Meunier Booked at 54mins
  • 8 Tielemans
  • 6 Witsel Booked at 44mins
  • 10 T Hazard
  • 7 De Bruyne
  • 14 Mertens (Praet 83′)
  • 9 Lukaku

Substitutes

  • 4 Mechele
  • 11 Lukebakio
  • 12 Mignolet
  • 13 Casteels
  • 16 Foket
  • 17 Vanaken
  • 18 Verschaeren
  • 19 Praet
  • 20 Benteke
  • 21 Delcroix
  • 22 Chadli
  • 23 Batshuayi

England

  • 1 Pickford
  • 2 Walker
  • 4 Dier
  • 12 Mings
  • 3 Trippier (Sancho 70’)
  • 8 Henderson (Winks 45’)
  • 5 Rice
  • 15 Chilwell (Saka 38′)
  • 7 Mount (Calvert-Lewin 69’)
  • 16 Grealish
  • 9 Kane

Substitutes

  • 6 Keane
  • 11 Sancho
  • 13 Pope
  • 14 Winks
  • 17 Maitland-Niles
  • 18 Calvert-Lewin
  • 19 Foden
  • 20 Saka
  • 21 Abraham
  • 22 Henderson
  • 23 Bellingham