England’s hopes of winning their UEFA Nations League group were ended with a 2-0 defeat away to Belgium.
First-half goals came from Youri Tielemand and Dries Mertens for the home team, though England twice went close to an equaliser in between those strikes, particularly with a Harry Kane header which was cleared off the line by Romelu Lukaku.
Gareth Southgate didn’t let the game drift, making a half-time sub as well as bringing on the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Jadon Sancho in the second half, but England struggled to fashion clear openings despite far more possession in the second half.
Lukaku had a big chance which was saved by Pickford late on and Bukayo Saka had a penalty appeal turned down.
Here are five things we learned from the match on Sunday evening.
READ MORE: Player ratings from Belgium vs England
Kane hits 50
A milestone night for the captain, as he won his 50th cap with England.
Kane has been in wonderful form for England and much of the talk over this international break has been over whether he can break the all-time goalscoring record.
Here he almost went one further step towards that, having a header cleared off the line, but while his finishing touch may not have had too many opportunities to shine on the night he certainly showed his all-round game remains exceptional.
His hold-up play was excellent, he bullied defenders and his touch and ability to turn away from players often created danger, though he remains on 32 goals for now.
Systemic issues in attack
While Kane impressed individually – and so too did Jack Grealish, more on him soon – the overall approach from England simply didn’t threaten Belgium enough.
After five games in their Nations League group, it’s just three goals for Southgate’s side, two of which were penalties.
Kane has been superb for Spurs this term…in part because he has runners beyond him, allowing him to showcase his entire range of attacking qualities and join up from deep afterwards.
This line-up, though, had nobody to run through when he dropped deep, had no really consistent build-up play in the channels to create crossing chances and the set-pieces were even dismal for the most part.
Belgium are typically thought of as a side which is particularly attack-minded and prefers to dominate possession under Roberto Martinez.
Here, though, they were clinical on the counter at times but mostly held England at bay through organisation, patience and concentration.
Their own back three looked more at-ease than England’s did in one-vs-one situations and the midfield knew exactly how and when to release the ball into the front line.
Belgium were within a whisker of topping the group tonight, only for a late Denmark penalty in the other game to thwart them, but they will again be a contender at Euro 2020 next summer.
Grealish pushes his case
While Kane had the milestone night, Grealish won the admiration of the viewers.
His ability to change direction in possession, draw tackles and progress the play was vital for the few chances England did create from open play and he will have vindicated the views of many in his handful of caps so far.
The conundrum for Southgate, if he wants to play him more now, is how to fit him in: the left-sided role is usually either Marcus Rashford’s or Raheem Sterling’s, both goalscorers and proven at the elite level of several seasons.
In truth, the one who came off worst from tonight’s game was Mason Mount, on the opposite flank and who was clearly more effective in a central role recently.
Nations League rotation?
The final game for the group is now a dead rubber for England and Southgate must feel he has an opportunity to rotate.
Some of the squad players might be keen to push their own chances of regular games, as Grealish has done, while a different formation or new partnerships in midfield might also be on the agenda.
England face Iceland on Wednesday and cannot come top or bottom, the only places which affect matters in the Nations League.
It hasn’t been as successful a campaign as the first time around, but there are still positives to take – if lessons can be learned.
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