Gareth Southgate needs to respond against Iceland on Wednesday | KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/Getty Images
On Sunday evening, England lost 2-0 to Belgium with their chances of winning that most illustrious of competitions, the UEFA Nations League, going up in flames as a result.
As with every England defeat, media hysteria is likely to follow. Some of the more unhinged Three Lions followers did not even wait for the game to be done, calling for Southgate’s head at half time. However, was it really that bad?
The result itself was negative, for sure. The back three’s comical attempts to play around the Belgian press was also pretty tragic, as was the depressing lack of pace in the front line. The midfield was pretty sterile as well, and why Mason Mount felt the need to keep coming inside instead of trying his luck against Thorgan Hazard – a man with next to no experience at wing-back – was a mystery.
Two first-half goals from the hosts decide this one.
The #ThreeLions were on top in the second half, but couldn’t turn things around. pic.twitter.com/HTIyiwgSAX
— England (@England) November 15, 2020
Aside from all of that, there were a few reasons to be a cheerful after a game that did not provide the best indication of where England are as a group.
First, a quick note of the two goals, both of which England can count themselves somewhat unlucky to concede. For the Red Devils’ first strike, scored by the fantastic Youri Tielamans, only a wicked deflection saw it slip past the outstretched but still rather short arms of Jordan Pickford.
However, this must be tempered by the fact that Tielemans would never have had the chance in the first place if Eric Dier hadn’t played a hospital pass several seconds beforehand. As for Belgium’s second – a fine free kick from Dries Mertens – Declan Rice can count himself unfortunate to have been penalised for what looked like a fair tackle on Kevin De Bruyne.
Tielemans and Mertens grabbed the goal for Belgium | John Berry/Getty Images
After going 2-0 down, Southgate’s charges were always going to be up against it. The Red Devils only conceded three times in Euro 2020 qualifying, the joint best record alongside Turkey, and have let in just four goals in the Nations League.
Despite the tough task that awaited them, the Three Lions responded fairly well in the first half. A neat exchange down the right hand side nearly resulted in Jack Grealish turning in Kieran Trippier’s cross, while Harry Kane also had a brilliant header cleared off the line. All in all, England had seven attempts before the break – the most they have recorded in any Nations League game so far.
They were also more than holding their own in other areas. They had won more aerial duels than their opponents, had more possession and also completed more tackles.
Player ratings after Belgium ended England’s chances of Nations League glory with a 2-0 win. | ✍️ @matthewOCS
— 90min (@90min_Football) November 15, 2020
However, in the second period, Southgate’s lack of bravery ended up costing his side.
Prior to the game, we pontificated that the 50-year-old’s reign was starting to feel begrudgingly familiar. Negative tactics, favouritism towards certain players and a grinding sense that England are just ‘going through the motions’ are all accusations that have been levelled at Southgate in recent times.
Things like replacing a static Jordan Henderson for an even safer Harry Winks at half time of a ‘win or bust’ fixture do little to address the former concern among supporters. Neither is persisting with an anonymous Mason Mount, when one of the most productive forwards in European football last season sits on the bench, likely to relax fears of favouritism.
Southgate will be eager to get a result on Wednesday night | VIRGINIE LEFOUR/Getty Images
Phil Foden’s curious omission will also not convince Southgate’s doubters that he’s the man to bring the sexy football show to Euro 2021 – also known as Euro 2020 to UEFA’s marketing team – in the summer.
England’s Wednesday night game against Iceland is now an important moment for Southgate to address some of these qualms. On paper, his squad is leaps and bounds ahead and a more dynamic, braver tactical set-up is needed to get the fans back on side.