England went into Sunday’s Uefa Nations League match against Belgium with a slim theoretical chance of reaching the finals, said David Hytner in The Guardian. But actually, that wasn’t their priority. Ahead of the “serious business of the European Championship finals next summer”, Gareth Southgate was looking for a “cohesive” performance against the world’s top-ranked side. And though Belgium emerged as 2-0 winners at the Den Dreef stadium, that is arguably what he got. Southgate’s men “hogged the ball”, hit more shots on target than the Belgians, and spent most of the second half in opposition territory. They probably played better than they did in winning the reverse fixture 2-1 last month. Yet one big worry remains for Southgate’s side: its lack of potency in front of goal. In five Nations League ties this year, they’ve scored just three times (and two were penalties). Southgate has to hope that, if they carry on playing as they did on Sunday, goals and results will eventually follow.
One thing the encounter did clarify is that Jack Grealish is likely to be central to Southgate’s plans next summer, said Jason Burt in The Daily Telegraph. Making his first full start for England, the Aston Villa player was at times “unstoppable”. Nearly all England’s attacks went through him, and so audacious was one of his moves – an impudent flick over Thomas Meunier – that it almost “broke the internet”. There is a history in English football of maverick players making “compelling late runs before tournaments” – Paul Gascoigne did so before Italia 90 – and Grealish may well be in that tradition. Yet accommodating his creative flair within the side’s current structure won’t be easy, said Matt Dickinson in The Times. Although on Sunday he was deployed as part of the front three, his best work, in reality, was in a midfield role, “driving forward on the ball as a No. 8 or a No. 10”. Within Southgate’s preferred formation, such a position “does not exist”.
There’s a danger that Grealish’s “dashing” performance could become a “glorious distraction” from England’s all-too-real limitations, said Henry Winter in the same paper. This, in truth, was a “sobering night for England”, one that painfully exposed their inferiority to the far more clinical Belgians. Only Grealish provided grounds for optimism; the rest of the team were dismayingly mediocre (though admittedly they were hampered by injuries). What’s increasingly clear is that Southgate’s favoured 5-2-3 formation leads to an over-cautious midfield and restricts Harry Kane in attack. England need to revert to the 4-3-3 that “served them so well in Seville” in 2018. If Southgate doesn’t provide this “tactical rethink”, England “risk wasting a gifted, if not golden, generation”.