England went top of their Uefa Nations League group on Sunday with an impressive 2-1 win over Belgium.
In what was a real struggle of a first half, the Three Lions fell behind to a Romelu Lukaku penalty but found themselves back level just 23 minutes later via the same route, Marcus Rashford dispatching from 12 yards.
Gareth Southgate’s men improved after the break and largely dominated the second half, finally finding their reward as Mason Mount’s 64th-minute effort deflected off Toby Alderweireld and looped over goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to give England a statement win over the No.1 ranked team in international football right now.
So, what did we learn from the clash at Wembley?
1. History under the arch for Lukaku
For all his incredible achievements in English football with Man Utd, Everton and West Brom, Lukaku always found it tough at Wembley. His FA Cup semi-final penalty miss for the Toffees against United in 2016 still lives strong in the memory for many Evertonians and the 27-year-old was yet to get off the mark at the home of English football ahead of Sunday’s match.
But Lukaku exorcised those demons here, firing Belgium into a 16th-minute lead from the spot after brilliantly racing past Eric Dier to draw the foul in the box — the first goal England have conceded in exactly a year.
It was a deserved goal for Lukaku, who led the line brilliantly for Roberto Martinez during the opening 45 minutes, and in finding the net, the Inter Milan striker became just the 11th Belgian to score a goal at Wembley and the first to do so in an international game Paul Van Himst in 1964.
2. Selection issues and a lack of first-half fun for England
Coming off the back of a 3-0 win over Wales, in which a number of players looking to break into Gareth Southgate’s starting XI excelled, England should have been brimming with confidence heading into Sunday’s game. But for an opening 10 minutes in which they dominated the ball, the Three Lions were largely lacklustre in the first half and lucky to go into the break level.
England were slow and lethargic in possession, opting for safe passes instead of taking risks and lacking any sort of drive with the ball at their feet. By contrast, Belgium seemed to move through the gears like a well-oiled machine, hitting England in transition with terrifying speed and shifting the ball around with a great mixture of authority and menace. Lukaku alone created more chances (3) and had more shots (2) than the entire Three Lions team combined, while Dominic Calvert-Lewin was starved of service at the other end.
Was starting Dier instead of Conor Coady a mistake? Perhaps having the left-footed Tyrone Mings in the side might have helped? And you have to wonder how Jack Grealish felt being left on the bench after putting in such a fine performance during Thursday’s friendly win. The Aston Villa captain is one of a precious few in this England squad with the willingness and ability to both carry the ball forward from deep and pick the lock in the final third. It’s safe to say the fans weren’t happy with the starting XI, anyway.
Is this a wind up? ?♂️?
— Alan Rickwood (@AlanRickwood) October 11, 2020
3 rbs, no Grealish and Rashford in a two pic.twitter.com/EKyyrlcczu
— Marcus (@MarcusUTD_) October 11, 2020
Regardless, this was not a fun 45 minutes to watch from an England perspective, with the Three Lions sloppy and lacking ideas…
3. …but did the second half offer a glimpse of the wider plan?
As much as England were poor in the opening 45 minutes, they have to be given credit for a complete turnaround in the second half.
Whether Southgate had brought out the hairdryer or simply had a few quiet words, he clearly addressed the issues in possession, with England pushing their line further forward to start dominating the ball closer to the Belgian penalty area.
The result was a more dynamic performance in which the Three Lions quickly switched possession between wing-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Tripper — the route via which they found the winning goal — while the likes of Rashford and Mount were better able to isolate Belgian defenders in one-on-ones thanks to the disorganization caused by quicker rotations of the ball.
Belgium still created chances but, then again, England could have had more too: Harry Kane’s header going wide of the post in the 82nd minute a prime example. But Dier got to grips with Lukaku — who had just one more shot in the second half — and the Three Lions were better able to keep a lid on the creative exploits of Kevin De Bruyne, who was withdrawn on 73 minutes.
England are well-versed in a three-man-defence system thanks to their exploits at the 2018 World Cup. Sunday’s second half — where the wing-backs pushed higher, the midfield asserted more dominance and the entire team became more compact without the ball — may offer a glimpse into Southgate’s wider plan of reintroducing this system.
4. Rashford caps off a fine week
With Raheem Sterling out of the squad and the likes of Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane on the bench, much of the attacking responsibility for England was always going to be placed upon Rashford. Luckily, he is a young man absolutely brimming with confidence right now.
The Man Utd man stepped up to level the score from the penalty spot in the 39th minute, sending Simon Mignolet the wrong way, and in all honesty, he never looked like missing.
4 – @MarcusRashford is the fourth @ManUtd player to score in four consecutive competitive appearances for @England after Bobby Charlton, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney (x2). MBE. #ENGBEL pic.twitter.com/sEalTtxDQQ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 11, 2020
Rashford has now scored in four consecutive England games, becoming just the fourth Man Utd player to achieve such a feat for the Three Lions after Sir Bobby Charlton, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney (x2).
Marcus Rashford MBE, we salute you!
5. More home comforts for the Three Lions
Given the lengths of time between international matches, a particular run of form or scoring streak can often creep up on you without realising. With that in mind, now is a good time to remind you that England are really, really lethal on home soil.
This is now the eighth consecutive home game in which England have scored at least two goals in a run which takes in ties against the likes of Croatia and Sunday’s opponents, as well as Wales and the United States.
2 – @England have scored at least twice in their last eight International matches on home soil, the Three Lions' longest such streak since September 2010 (18 in a row). Dipped. #ENGBEL pic.twitter.com/Sk4oECq5Jm
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 11, 2020
As mentioned, the second half against Belgium was a vast improvement in terms of performance and the win — which sends England top of Group A2 — will send out a message that the Three Lions are once again taking the Nations League seriously.
With Belgium now out of the way, those home comforts might just carry them through to another finals tournament.