If facing the number one ranked nation was to provide a true test of England’s worth then beating them shows that they can be contenders for next summer’s European Championships.
This victory over Belgium also breathed life into England’s Nations League campaign but the bigger picture for Gareth Southgate is that his team can find a way to win without playing particularly well. They are in tournament mode and this was a result and a performance that will toughen them up. It is a good habit, especially in coming from behind, and although both goals had a touch of fortune – a penalty that easily could have not been awarded followed by a winning strike that took a huge deflection – it was a significant competitive win nonetheless.
After turgid performances against Iceland and Denmark in this competition this was England’s best result since beating Spain away, also in the Nations League, almost two years ago. In fact England now top their group and could reach the finals again next year.
Two years is as long as Roberto Martinez’s Belgium – who beat England twice in the last World Cup – have gone undefeated and he will wonder how his team managed not to take the points here after being so dominant. Mount’s goal was a vindication for Southgate selecting him ahead of Jack Grealish while the manager also ignored the pressure not to play Harry Kane who came on as a substitute despite not being able to start the tie due to muscle tightness.
As expected wholesale changes were made from the friendly win over Wales, with only Kieran Trippier retained although he was played in a different position and Kyle Walker impressing – earning his 50th cap – in central defence as he redeemed himself after his dismissal against Iceland.
Alongside him Eric Dier recovered after a poor opening half hour. And to think it had largely been a chastening, and a chasing, for England for much of a first-half in which they were fortunate to end level as both sides traded penalties. That they were so much improved in the second period and showed the character to eke out the result will have encouraged Southgate.
As the adage goes – they found a way. From the start it was Belgium’s pressing game; the movement and technique of Kevin De Bruyne, the directness of Yannick Carrasco, the passing of Youri Tielemens and the focus that Romelu Lukaku gave the attack that delivered a clear advantage to the visitors. England were holding on before they fell behind with Lukaku undoing the defence, as was feared, and exposing Dier in the centre of the three-man defence. The striker simply pushed the ball past Dier and was too quick for him with the defender diving in.
The penalty was rightly given and Lukaku sent the ball left-footed into the corner of the net. Dier was not the only defender at fault with Harry Maguire having also dived into a tackle, in Belgium’s half, in the build-up to what was Lukaku’s 53rd goal for his country and his 13th in 11 games as he ended England’s hopes of achieving record seventh successive clean sheet. It could have been worse as Belgium dominated and England struggled to gain any control with a team that fielded three right-backs. One of those, Walker, was deployed on the right of the defensive three, presumably to combat Lukaku’s speed, but the forward simply played on the other side against the slower Dier and Maguire.
Belgium, who had an effort ruled out for offside, went close when a snap-shot from wing-back Thomas Meunier swung just past the post after Axel Witsel won a header on the edge of the England area. And it was Meunier who was involved in the concession of the penalty from which England drew level Yes, Meunier had his hand on Jordan Henderson’s shoulder as the England captain attempted to reach a corner but undoubtedly the midfielder made the most of it. Still the penalty was given and Marcus Rashford celebrated the award of his MBE by firing the spot-kick high into the net.
In what would be his final involvement before also being substituted, De Bruyne created the chance from which Belgium should have equalised as he bent a superb pass to meet Carrasco’s run. Clear on goal Carrasco flicked his shot beyond Pickford but also past the post. England escaped again as Walker recovered superbly to track down Lukaku who had appeared to have broken through and then blocked the striker’s shot.
In that one instance alone Walker showed his value in central defence. England stabilised. Kane glanced a header across goal and then Rice combined well with Rashford only for the latter to shoot over when well-placed. The pressure was relieved and England had their win. They found a way.