After falling to defeat tonight in Leuven, England will now not be going to next year’s UEFA Nations League finals. Instead, Belgium – who defeated England 2-0 tonight – will face off with Denmark on Wednesday to decide the winners of League A’s Group 2.
It was a frustrating evening for England, who fell behind in the first half to a somewhat fortunate Youri Tielemans goal when the ball flicked off Tyrone Mings. A debatable free-kick saw Belgium extend their lead to 2-0, Dries Mertens converting the dead-ball beautifully.
England improved dramatically in the second half and largely bossed proceedings. But despite the best efforts of Jack Grealish and Harry Kane, they were unable to find a goal to really test their hosts.
Here are five talking points from Belgium’s win over England.
#1 England’s midfield was devoid of creativity, particularly in the first half
To say that England’s switch to a 3-4-3 system this year hasn’t paid off would be an understatement. They might’ve picked up a fortunate win over Belgium in October, but their style of football using the system has been dour, largely due to Gareth Southgate persisting with two holding midfielders in the center of the pitch.
That was the case again tonight, as Southgate started with Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson as his midfield two. To the surprise of nobody, England were thoroughly devoid of creativity throughout the first half, with defender Tyrone Mings providing the better balls through to the forward line. Poor Harry Kane was once again left attempting to feed on scraps.
The second half saw England improve dramatically, though. That was seemingly because Harry Winks – a better technical ball-player – was introduced for Henderson. However, Winks is still not a creator, and despite England dominating possession, the only sparks came from Jack Grealish in a wide left role. And sure enough, Southgate’s team never really tested Thibaut Courtois.
Understandably, Southgate would want to shore up England’s defense leading into next summer’s European Championship. But by doing so, he’s completely blunted the team’s attack.
Surely a 3-4-3 system with a duo of a defensive midfielder – either Rice, Henderson, or Winks – alongside an attacker like Mason Mount, Ross Barkley, James Maddison or Phil Foden would be more convincing?
#2 Was the free-kick for Belgium’s second goal legitimate?
Nobody could dispute the brilliance of Dries Mertens’ free-kick for Belgium’s second goal. It was a picture-perfect dead-ball that left England keeper Jordan Pickford with no chance. Admittedly, it was curious why some of England’s wall didn’t jump for the ball, but the likelihood is they wouldn’t have blocked the shot anyway.
However, there was a big question mark as to whether the free-kick should’ve been given in the first place. Referee Danny Makkelie blew his whistle to signal that Declan Rice had fouled Kevin De Bruyne. But it appeared to be clear that Rice had won the ball with his challenge.
It was just one baffling call of many from the Dutch official, who gave a total of 23 free-kicks throughout the match, despite it not really being a dirty one. Many of those free-kicks were arguable at best, with both teams benefiting at times from his strange decisions.
This was not the first poor game for Makkelie involving England. His bizarre call to disallow a Danny Welbeck goal cost Gareth Southgate’s side a draw against Spain in 2018. Judging by tonight’s performance, he’s simply not cut out to referee at the highest level.