England’s failure to beat the very best teams in the world has long been a criticism of the squad under Gareth Southgate’s reign – but he came up with a smart half-time intervention to steer them to an important win over Belgium, the world’s number one side, on Sunday.
The significance of the victory has parallels with England’s 3-2 win away to Spain in October 2018, at the same stage of the previous edition of the Nations League.
But while that win was based on a first-half blitz, England’s 2-1 comeback success over Belgium owed much to the manager’s half-time tactical changes.
Here, we look at how Southgate helped England pull off a win which could prove a significant moment in their development ahead of next summer’s European Championships…
England kicked off in a 3-4-3 formation, but with no left-footed outfield players, there had been pre-match concerns about the balance of the team and whether Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson could provide the creativity the hosts would need when in possession.
After a positive, purposeful start, those concerns proved to be valid. Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp described England’s first half as “an uncomfortable watch”.
Gary Neville, on co-commentary, was unimpressed by England’s pattern of play. “What you’ve got at the moment are a series of simple, safe 10-yard square passes and then a predictable cross at the end of it,” he said. “There’s no invention in the game. That was always the danger when you looked at the XI Gareth Southgate picked today.”
More worryingly, Romelu Lukaku – in his first game back in England since leaving Manchester United – was playing like a striker with a point to prove and causing the hosts major defensive problems. He out-ran Eric Dier to win the penalty which he slammed home to put Belgium ahead and caused the centre-back all sorts of problems.
Around him, Yannick Carrasco and Kevin De Bruyne were repeatedly finding dangerous areas, with Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker – either side of Dier – struggling with their runs.
“That backline of England is fragile,” said Neville. “Southgate has played five at the back to try to make it more robust but it’s creaking a little.”
But despite Belgium’s dominance, England came in at half-time level, after Jordan Henderson had gone down easily from Thomas Meunier’s pull-back to win a penalty and Marcus Rashford despatched the spot-kick.
Changes were needed, though. “The system hasn’t really worked,” said Redknapp.
Eventual match winner Mason Mount told Sky Sports that the half-time interval allowed England the chance to “regroup” but also “talk about what we could do better and fix the problems we were having”.
The message from Southgate was to encourage the team to shift further up the pitch and reduce the gaps between their lines of defence, midfield and attack. “We tried to stay higher, pressure on the ball and try to win it back as quickly as we can,” explained Mount. “We didn’t want them to have a lot of the ball, especially in our half.”
But there were also subtle changes defensively, in terms of how England marshalled Belgium’s attacks.
“Against the best the detail of how you defend as a team has to be absolutely bang on,” Southgate told Sky Sports afterwards. “In the second half we got that right.
“In the second half, you have to be perfect against these teams without the ball, and bar the one brilliant pass from Kevin De Bruyne, we were so compact, our covering positions were good.”
Another half-time instruction from the England boss – albeit one that very much depended on his players – was to use the ball better when they did have it. To “be better on the ball, to keep the ball better in their half and create chances,” said Mount.
To do that, England’s players needed more options – and Southgate called on wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold to drop in-field, into pockets of space between Belgium’s defence and midfield.
The change in approach turned the game around. “England deserve real credit,” Neville said on commentary as England began to get more of a foothold. “They did look inferior for large parts of the first half.”
On the front foot, England looked far more threatening, with Trippier and Alexander-Arnold providing options to link the play through the lines. “England are changing it up a little bit, it’s the wing-backs drifting into little pockets; No 10 positions,” said Neville. Meanwhile, Mount pushed into the Belgian box more frequently.
In fact, his winning goal came thanks to that more ambitious approach.
“How they scored the second goal was Declan Rice in and around it, involved. Alexander-Arnold with the cross, Trippier on the end of it and then Mason with the finish,” said Sky Sports pundit Ashley Cole.
The big thing about the second half – other than the confidence on the ball and the players taking up better attacking positions – is they’ve stopped the flow into Lukaku completely.
There was another key result of England’s changes too. “The big thing about the second half – other than the confidence on the ball and the players taking up better attacking positions – is they’ve stopped the flow into Lukaku completely,” said Neville.
With Trippier working back hard on the left flank, England were able to reduce the supply lines into the striker and also outnumber him when he did get the ball. Cole pointed out England got “more aggressive with Lukaku” and Southgate described Trippier as “like a soldier” afterwards, praising his “unbelievable defensive performance”.
But Southgate was also keen to stress this was a brilliant defensive performance from front to back.
“Marcus [Rashford], Mason, Dominic [Calvert-Lewin] and then Harry [Kane], positionally close to perfect, intelligent in their pressing. They had the legs to go and press, and that means the midfield players don’t have to jump out of position. And it means we’re not exposed with bodies in-between the lines. The whole team – I’m very proud of what they did.”
“In the second half it has been the best performance for some while,” was Neville’s assessment, and there was a definite feel-good mood around Wembley after England’s win.
“Southgate made changes at half-time and they were more compact. The defence pushed up the pitch and there were more options,” added Neville. “He made some little tweaks at half-time, Gareth Southgate, and you can see it’s helping his players have more options on the ball.”
There will surely be times in the future where Southgate reverts to a back four or plays a back three in a different way, such as in a 5-3-2, but this win over Belgium was a major milestone. It wasn’t perfect, as Redknapp pointed out afterwards, but Southgate described it as “a big moment” and a key experience for his players.
But it was also an impressive night’s work from the manager, who proved he can react to solve problems against the world’s best. England will need that kind of intervention at times if they’re to go far at the Euros.
See if England can follow up their win over Belgium with another Nations League group-game victory, when they host Denmark on Wednesday, live on Sky Sports Main Event from 7pm; kick-off 7.45pm.