Football Features

“2018 seems a really long time ago, doesn’t it?” – Winners and Losers as England fall to Belgium after disappointing display

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:05, 15 November 2020

In a tight and disciplined night of football, Belgium beat England 2-0 in Hervelee to qualify for the Nations League finals.

Belgium started better and then were superior throughout the night no matter the industry from some of the English players. Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Dries Mertens

In terms of quality players that go unappreciated, Dries Mertens is right up there. The Belgian forward has the “misfortune” to be playing in an absolutely stacked Belgian side where he is not even the third best attacking player, which is absurd but true.

So it’s nice when he gets recognised, when he gets a moment. It’s even nicer when that moment comes in a stadium just a few hundred metres from where he was born. Mertens grew up in Leuven, just next to the town of Hervelee where the match took place, and had the stadium been full of fans they would have roared to the heavens when the forward stepped up to curl in a beautiful free-kick to make it 2-0.

A wonderful moment that gave Belgium a commanding lead they never surrendered, and would surely have earned Mertens a hometown standing ovation when he left the field later in the second-half. Finally a starring act.

Loser: Mason Mount

First thing’s first: Mason Mount is great. A superb, hard-working midfielder he is energetic off the ball and keeps things simple on it. He’s not world-class but he does what he’s asked to, which makes him invaluable in a stacked squad full of individualists like Chelsea’s. Or even England’s when everyone is fit.

That’s the thing, today everyone wasn’t fit. England were shorn their most dynamic forwards, which means that including a player like Mount – especially in the forward line – made him look oh so bad. Mount was a complete non-event in the game whose most memorable moment was giving the ball away in the lead-up to Belgium’s first goal.

There’s a time and a place for Mason Mount, and it was not tonight.

Winner: Jack Grealish

At least one England player appeared to be having fun out there against Belgium and it was predictably Jack Grealish. Making his first competitive start for England, Grealish knew he had to put in a good performance to justify all the hype and debate over him.

And, well, that’s just what he did.

Grealish was always involved in England’s attacks, looking to instigate and feed his team-mates. Some of his passing was superb and he more than anyone else was the one who drove England forward in their impressive second-half display that saw them pen Belgium back.

Grealish ended the match with 2 chances created and 4/6 take-ons completed. A dynamic performance that will have convinced Southgate that Grealish will have a part to play even when all the starting forwards come back. In fact can you imagine if Grealish was passing to the likes of Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford instead of Mason Mount? Captain Jack proved tonight he belongs in an England shirt.

When asked, post-match, if there was a reason to be positive post-match the England legend said “yes there is, and his name is Jack Grealish.” That just about sums it up with Captain Jack Grealish.

Loser: Jordan Pickford

Narratives can form around certain players, reputations can be earned and are very hard to shift. Sergio Busquets once committed a theatrical dive a decade ago and he is still known firstly for that before any of his on-pitch accolades and performances.

Similarly, Jordan Pickford is know going to be known as a short goalkeeper with small arms. It doesn’t matter that Youri Tielemans’ shot deflected twice on its way through, the way it flew by Pickford’s arms made you think that a taller, longer-limbed keeper would have kept it out. And no matter how beautiful Dries Mertens’ free-kick was, you’ll be sure that someone like Nick Pope would have got there.

These things could be true, but they could equally be false – but they will be in the discussion because that is quite simply the reputation Jordan Pickford has now. Years of mistakes and slips have created it, and he’s not going to shake it any time soon.

Winner: Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling

The rises of Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish and the searing return to form of Harry Kane, England’s two wing-forwards Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, so often abused by their own media, would perhaps have worried for their futures with England.

Well, worry no more lads. Tonight’s display showed just how much England are crying out for the kind of pace and movement beyond the main striker that these two provide. Harry Kane kept dropping deep but when he turned to play the ball forward there was no Sterling and no Rashford. No pace, no penetration, no luck. Rashford and Sterling are going nowhere.

Loser: Gareth Southgate

Oh dear, Gareth. 2018 seems a really long time ago now, doesn’t it?

Alright, no Rashford and Sterling.

Alright, no Maguire or Phillips.

Alright, Belgium are really good.

But that was not the best England could do. Not even close. Southgate picked the wrong XI with the wrong approach. Two defensive midfielders ahead of a back three that doesn’t have any excellent passes in it, and they’re passing out from the back? What?

A front three of Jack Grealish, Mason Mount and Harry Kane? Grealish has thrived alongside other dynamic and athletic players at Aston Villa, so why have you put him with two of the slowest and least-dynamic forwards England have? Alright Kane is world-class, and was bright tonight, but that third forward slot was crying out for someone like Phil Foden or, y’know, Jadon Sancho. Someone with a bit of dynamism to take advantage of Kane and Grealish’s playmaking skills.

Of course Southgate made a switch at half-time, bringing on Harry Winks for Jordan Henderson, and that did help – but it’s not like England were hammering down the door. They had 16 attempts to Belgium’s 8, but their best chance remained the Kane header from a corner that Lukaku cleared off the line in the first-half in the first 25 minutes of the game. Courtois wasn’t that troubled in defence and for all of Grealish’s brilliance, England were nowhere near potent enough in a second-half where Belgium were happy for them to have the ball and in fact the hosts created the best chance of the half when De Bruyne and Mertens combined to create a shot for Lukaku that he put at Pickford.

Now England are out of the Nations League and must look forward to the 2021 Euros and 2022 World Cup. And in the meantime, Gareth Southgate needs to get some new ideas, some new sense of invention, because right now England look to have the same issue they did in 2018: too conservative against the better sides, not playing dynamic enough football and not taking enough risks.

You can’t always have your best players available, but you can always play your best style. England did not do that in Belgium and yet again you can’t get over the idea that Gareth Southgate has failed his team.

England needs a hero, Gareth. Now would be a great time to step up and fill out that waistcoat.