LONDON — England have prioritised defining a clear sense of identity ever since Gareth Southgate took charge in 2016. The 50-year-old’s attempt to deconstruct inhibitions created by past failures and reimagine England as a youthful side unencumbered by history improbably took them to the World Cup semifinals two years ago.
Belgium’s visit to Wembley offers a neat opportunity to determine their progress since then, given the teams met twice in Russia with Roberto Martinez’s side winning on both occasions. And while the result offers encouragement that England remain admirably robust enough to compete with the best teams, the manner of this 2-1 win raises questions about just what sort of team they are trying to be.
After all, a lot of this felt very 2018. Southgate isn’t the only one of us who remembers that summer with great fondness. Fans had never felt closer to the England team. Waistcoats were the sartorial necessity at that time, not face masks. But he was quick to shed the waistcoat after the tournament in what could be described with a little artistic licence as a metaphorical message to his players that it was time to move on, time to evolve.
England were superb at the 2018 World Cup, but in seven matches, they lost three times and cleverly exploited an acute understanding of the — then novel — VAR process to augment their performances. They played with a back three. Kyle Walker played as a right-sided centre-back despite bluntly stating just a few days before England’s opening game against Tunisia that “it is a little bit of a step back” to shift from his preferred right-back berth.
Both happened again here. For a long time, Walker looked predictably uncomfortable, England were overtly cautious in approach and looked palpably inferior in possession to a Belgium side spearheaded by the excellent Romelu Lukaku and orchestrated by the peerless Kevin De Bruyne.
Lukaku scored from the penalty spot after 16 minutes, having been fouled by Eric Dier, and England struggled for a foothold in the game. A midfield pairing of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice lacked creativity as they passed relentlessly sideways, leaving Dominic Calvert-Lewin to feed off scraps, albeit doing so with the ravenous attitude and appetite that has seen him reach 10 goals for club and country already this term.
Belgium are the best team in the world, according to the FIFA rankings, and so a degree of vigilance in Southgate’s lineup was understandable, especially with Harry Kane only capable of a place on the bench due to “muscle fatigue” and Raheem Sterling absent altogether after sustaining a hamstring injury. But an increasingly common theme since the restart is Southgate using a back three, which becomes a five-man defence out of possession; this has been the case against Denmark, Wales and now Belgium. Surrendering the initiative like this enhances the influence of opponent profligacy and downright luck, the former of which Yannick Carrasco particularly obliged and the latter contributed to both England goals.
Henderson felt a hand on his shoulder from Thomas Meunier, and although the contact did not warrant the fall, the incident yielded a penalty, awarded by German referee Tobias Stieler. Marcus Rashford celebrated his MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list with an emphatic spot kick.
Walker recovered from his slow start to finish the game strongly, helping keep Lukaku in check as Belgium searched in vain for an equaliser. Rashford went close at the other end to widen the margin of victory, which would have been even harsher on the visitors.
A contain-and-counterattack approach ultimately proved effective in England keeping their hopes of Nations League finals qualification intact, inflicting Belgium’s first defeat anywhere since November 2018. But does this approach maximise the talent at Southgate’s disposal in the long run?
“I don’t think it matters what the preferred system is,” Southgate told members of the media after the match. “Tonight you saw a top-level game where we were able to use the ball well, create chances — you don’t get many chances but in this level of the game, we did create chances.
“Defensively, you have got to be spot on. You can’t be loose in any way, shape or form. The players took that on board. We had a 20-minute spell where we were getting caught with overloads, one-twos down the side, lots of quick decisions that had to be made, but they rode through that. When you think the front players plus Declan and Trent [Alexander-Arnold] are so young, it is a brilliant experience for them to play against such a top team. To go and win it should give them a sense of what might be possible over the next few years for them.”
After England had secured their place for the last World Cup, Southgate used the final qualifier — against Lithuania away — to shift from the 4-2-3-1 shape they used throughout to a back three they then honed in the months that followed. He then moved to a 4-3-3 system after Russia to get more attacking talent in his team, enthused by the prospect of Jadon Sancho emerging alongside Rashford, Kane and Sterling. The supporting rhetoric was of creating a more expansive, dynamic team capable of imposing themselves on almost any team.
A gluttony of goals followed. England’s 37 goals in Euro 2020 qualifying was a tally equalled by Italy and only surpassed by Belgium (40). Since then, Calvert-Lewin, Mount, Jack Grealish and James Maddison have trained on at club level, giving Southgate a plethora of exciting options.
This pool of talent may be top-heavy and bereft of a midfield metronome in the mould of De Bruyne, but the best team it can produce on paper does not cry out for the conservative mentality that has become a more consistent theme. Having strayed once from 4-3-3 — to a 4-2-3-1 formation in which England lost to the Czech Republic — an increasing caution has crept into Southgate’s selections. Last month he even admitted he picked a three-man defence against Denmark out of a concern that off-field issues could destabilise his players, therefore an extra defender afforded them additional security. Those days were supposed to be behind them.
In the end, results are all that matter. An expansive style is not the only route to success, and regardless, Southgate was right to hail this as an important milestone in England’s development. The hope is in the months ahead, however, that they will develop into something more, because to win Euro 2020, they will surely have to.