Spirited England make the most of limited opportunities
Goals from Rashford and Mount enough to overcome highly-rated Belgium
Mason Mount of England celebrates scoring what proved to be his team’s winning second goal during the Nations League victory over Belgium at Wembley. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
England 2 Belgium 1
In the hunt for positives, Gareth Southgate could laud the spirit of his England team and their ruthlessness.
The statistics showed that they had mustered three shots on target and they made two of them count as they summoned a victory over the No 1 ranked team in world football that they hope can provide a touchstone.
The England manager will not kid himself. There remains an awful lot of work to do in the search for cohesion and Belgium departed Wembley wondering how they had allowed a position of dominance to slip away. They had led through Romelu Lukaku’s early penalty and, for long spells, they played the more assertive football.
But Belgium missed chances and they were left to rue the two decisive moments – a controversial penalty, given after Jordan Henderson had made a meal out of minimal contact with Thomas Meunier, which Marcus Rashford swept home, and a heavily-deflected Mason Mount shot that proved to be the winner.
Still, if this had been a major tournament game, rather than a Nations League tie, nobody would have complained about the manner of the victory; they would simply have savoured it.
After a dreadful first half, England were better in the second period and they will take the confidence boost into Wednesday’s meeting with Denmark and the challenges beyond.
It looked as though Southgate had gone back to the future with his starting line-up – which featured a back three and five survivors from the 2018 World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia, which would have been seven had Raheem Sterling not been injured and Kane fit enough only to be used off the bench. Kane had missed most of the week’s training because of muscle fatigue or, to put it another way, cramp.
The manager had wanted to use the game to gauge England’s level and it was always likely to be a tough task for his players to impose themselves. Belgium have been playing in a 3-4-3 system for rather longer than England have and there was fluency from them at the outset, sharpness about their passing, pace up the channels.
The same could not be said about England in the first-half and it was a struggle to explain how they reached the end of it at 1-1. Belgium were superior in all areas, pressing cohesively and penning England back. Southgate’s team struggled to get up the field and there were times when it felt like an ordeal.
The opening goal exposed a mismatch in terms of pace between Eric Dier and Lukaku as they chased a ball up the inside right. The Belgium centre forward gave his man a headstart but he hoovered up the ground and he was in control of the situation by the time that he entered the penalty area. Dier was unnerved and he seemed to panic, sliding into a challenge that risky, to say the least. He got none of the ball and went into Lukaku’s legs. It was a mess. Lukaku converted from the spot.
Belgium had fired warning shots. Lukaku could not get over a header from a Timothy Castagne cross while Yannick Carrasco had the ball in the net only for an offside flag during the build-up to thwart him. After Lukaku’s penalty, De Bruyne worked Jordan Pickford and Meunier swung a volley past the post.
England fashioned their lifeline out of nothing after Meunier put his hand on Henderson’s shoulder as they jostled at a corner. The stand-in England captain went down, his screams audible inside the empty stadium, and the referee, Tobias Stieler, felt that it added up to a modern penalty. It is highly doubtful that the contact was sufficient to drag Henderson over; he had done a number on Meunier. Rashford’s penalty was perfect.
The first half ended with Carrasco dragging wide after being released by a lovely Lukaku flick and it was plain that England needed to regroup.
They did so. There was greater intent in the second half, with England taking higher starting positions. Belgium no longer looked as if they could slice through at will and England’s defensive work was more secure. By and large, they kept their opponents at arm’s length.
Mount’s goal came after Kieran Trippier had headed back a deep Trent Alexander-Arnold cross and it contained a slice of luck, his shot deflecting off Toby Alderweireld and looping into the far, top corner. Alderweireld had been fractionally slow to close down Mount after he had jinked onto his right foot.
Belgium threatened when Carrasco touched wide following De Bruyne’s wonderful outside-of-the-boot pass and Kyle Walker, on the occasion of his 50th cap, twice thwarted Lukaku. England had found a way.