England needed some fortune to beat Belgium and can’t afford half a performance again

England needed some fortune to beat Belgium although their second half showing was an improvement… Gareth Southgate’s men will need to be braver ahead of Euro 2020 and can’t afford half a performance again

  • England beat Belgium at Wembley to move top of their Nations League group 
  • Goals from Marcus Rashford and Mason Mount had completed the comeback 
  • Romelu Lukaku opened the scoring in the first half and was in imperious form 
  • Gareth Southgate’s side improved but need to ensure they are more switched on 

It’s amazing the difference a couple of yards can make. Given just that amount of space for 45 minutes of this game, Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku appeared to be the kind of centre forward he never really was during his Premier League days.

Lukaku – now of Inter Milan – was a bully with a velvet touch. Everything he did worked. He won and converted a penalty. He set up team-mates with back heels, received the ball with his back to goal and either played colleagues in or turned and set off for goal.

It was an imperious half of football by Lukaku, formerly of Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea. Had it continued then it is likely Belgium would have won, rather than lost, this game. But it didn’t continue because it wasn’t allowed to.

England needed some good fortune to beat Belgium but their performance improved hugely

At half-time, no doubt encouraged by their manager, England’s three central defenders changed their approach. They started to get that yard or two closer to Lukaku, didn’t allow him the time to do everything he wanted. They made him hurry, made him think. It was a crucial change in a contest that England looked well out of at one stage but recovered to such an extent that they eased through the second half.

It’s true that England needed some fortune with their goals to get out of this with three points. A half-baked penalty and a deflection. But against the team ranked number one in the world this was a performance that improved hugely as it went on and the manner in which game was turned slowly on its head will not have been lost on manager Gareth Southgate as he looks to identify the players who can respond when big questions are asked.

For sure England’s central defenders were rotten for the first half an hour or more. Maybe Southgate should not have been surprised.

One of them, Kyle Walker, said after the last World Cup that he didn’t really like playing in that position. Another, Eric Dier, only recently won his battle at Tottenham to be recognised as a centre half rather than a midfield player, and the final one, Harry Maguire, has endured such a difficult start to the season on and off the pitch at Manchester United it was a surprise to see him playing here rather than someone like Michael Keane or Conor Coady, both of whom did so well against Wales last Thursday.

Nevertheless, three against one should not have been a fair fight. The three of them should have been able to deal with Lukaku. Really, they should.

The Belgian is, after all, the same player he was during those years in England. Quick, strong and able to finish when the ball is played in front of him but far from unstoppable. Lukaku’s great weakness was that he was always easy to read; he was rarely a player to surprise anybody. Yet here at Wembley the 27–year-old was given all the time he wanted to dictate the way the game was played.

With any kind of fortune or better finishing, Belgium could have been out of sight early. It is reasonable to say this was not, for example, the best night the visitors’ forward Yannick Carrasco has ever had. The Atletico Madrid player was a persistent and clever danger but could not score. When he did, early in the game, it was ruled out for an offside.

That it was England who prevailed, though, was down to their own admirable improvement and that bodes well. In the second period, England’s back three played higher up the pitch and in doing so made Lukaku think more when he had the ball or was about to join the play. No centre forward in the world has ever scored regularly when made to play facing the wrong way and this was the predicament Lukaku found himself in as England imposed themselves.

Confidence is everything in sport and as this game wore on the collective belief grew across the England back line. It was, in truth, a strange defensive selection by Southgate. For example Jordan Pickford was extremely fortunate to get his place back from Nick Pope in goal.

But the England coach seems determined to try just about every combination possible before settling on his team for next summer’s European Championships.

It still feels as though Maguire and Liverpool’s Joe Gomez are his strongest pairing and, if it is to be three central defenders from now on, then Keane’s improved form at Everton perhaps puts him in pole for the final spot.

Whoever the personnel, England will have to be braver, cuter and more switched on for the whole game than they were here. Half a match – half a performance – will only get the job done half of the time.

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