Gareth Southgate stumbles upon perfect tactics to take down Belgium | Jonathan Liew | Football

It wasn’t the perfect performance. Perhaps, in a weird way, that was for the best. Imagine the nonsense we would have had to put up with for the next eight months if England had beaten the world’s No 1 team – and the home of the European parliament to boot – with a perfect performance. The hoopla. The hubris. The jingoistic fervour. The Michel Barnier memes. Lather up Europe, our brave lads are coming for you.

Yet in the absence of perfection, you suspect Gareth Southgate will be content simply to pile up results. And this was a very decent result against a good side, albeit one secured with a contentious penalty and a massive deflection. After all, this wasn’t a useless friendly: these three crucial points took England top of Group A2 of the 2020-21 Nations League. Win the group and England will progress to the next stage, whatever it is, whenever and wherever it takes place.

Part of the reason this game will sharply divide opinion is that there is very little consensus over what this confusing new competition actually means. Where does it sit on the spectrum from glorified exhibition to proper silverware? Southgate’s curiously lopsided starting lineup – with Harry Kane and Jadon Sancho on the bench – indicated the former. On the other hand, his arch-pragmatism – the defensively minded Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice in front of a back five – suggested that at the very least this was a dress rehearsal for tournament football.

And ultimately this is how tournament games are often won: imperfectly, pragmatically, with large slices of luck and not always by the better team. Belgium have discovered that the hard way in each of the last two World Cups and, for all the justifiable pride over their ascent to the summit of the world rankings, this was the sort of result that plants doubts. They were superior here in every respect: embarrassingly so, at times. Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku were probably the best two players on the pitch. And yet they lost.

How did it happen? Firstly, England succeeded in turning the game into a wrestle. The more structured and orderly the game is, the less it suits them. We saw this again in the first half-hour, in which England’s midfield two were persistently swamped by Belgium’s three of De Bruyne, Axel Witsel and Youri Tielemans. With neither wing-back pushing high enough, England’s 3-4-3 was more akin to a 5-2-3 devoid of creativity or passing options: Croatia 2018 all over again.



Jordan Henderson (right) was in the thick of the action against Belgium at Wembley. Photograph: Rob Newell/CameraSport/Getty Images

Part of the problem here, you sense, is self-fulfilling prophesy. England clearly began the game with ambitions of playing elastic, front-footed attacking football. But as soon as the first couple of attacks broke down, they began to slip all too easily into familiar lethargic patterns. Early on Rice won the ball high up the pitch, yet instead of launching another attack the ball was pointlessly recycled: back, around, forwards, sideways, back, around, back. Eventually, after 90 seconds and 30 harmless passes, involving every outfield player at least once, Henderson was tackled.

Part of the problem, too, was tactics. England’s starting lineup felt like a clerical error. A right‑back at centre-back, a right-back at left‑back, and of course a right-back at right-back: Trent Alexander‑Arnold, who grew into his role in the second half but could be forgiven for wondering whether this all meant he was the best man for the job, or simply the least versatile.

There were several contenders for that crown in the first half. Yet early in the second we got a glimpse of how it all might work. As England brought the ball out of defence, Belgium scented blood: pushing high and surrounding Henderson and Rice with markers. Instead the ball went long, Dominic Calvert‑Lewin won the header, and all of a sudden Marcus Rashford was away. Suckered by the prospect of an easy steal, Belgium had overcommitted and left themselves vulnerable to the classic English route one.

Was this the plan all along? Understaffing the centre of midfield, persuading teams to overpress, and then simply sending it long? If so, fair play: it takes some considerable intuition to turn your terrible midfield into a virtue, a decoy, a sort of Potemkin midfield whose function is essentially to deter the ball somewhere else. This is why, you suspect, Southgate is so keen on Kalvin Phillips, who is so good at drawing attacking players out of position.

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Calvert-Lewin’s holding-up skills could also make him a vital cog in the machine: nudging or flicking the ball on to quick runners, much as Olivier Giroud still does for France. Naturally, there’s a strong element of risk to this approach too: it requires other teams to play ball, invites pressure on your back line, trusts considerably to good fortune and a kind bounce. It’s also an approach that doesn’t appear to have an obvious place for Jack Grealish.

But perhaps Southgate has concluded that the cultured, technical ball-playing English midfielders he wants simply don’t exist right now, and this is his solution. It’s not perfect. But then, so little of international football is.


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