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UEFA Nations League, November 15 2020

Belgium 2
  • Tielemans (10)
  • Mertens (24)
England 0

Belgium ended England’s chances of a return to the UEFA Nations League finals with a victory that left Gareth Southgate’s side third in group A2, five points off top spot with one game remaining. First-half goals from Youri Tielemans and Dries Mertens left England with too big a mountain to climb and, despite dominating possession, they struggled to create much of note against Roberto Martínez’s team, who currently sit top of FIFA’s world’s rankings. Southgate was nevertheless pleased with England’s display in the absence of some key players, such as Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Trent Alexander-Arnold. “We don’t like losing but enormous credit to the team,” Southgate said. “All the way through they created problems and defended resiliently. I thought we were excellent. I couldn’t have enough praise for the players.”

Shots / On target

Belgium8/3
England14/3

Possession

Belgium43%
England57%

Passes / Accurate

Belgium509/439
England623/550

Fouls / Yellow / Red

Belgium15 / 3 / 0
England8 / 0 / 0

In possession: Belgium

Roberto Martínez set Belgium up in a 3-4-3 formation in possession, with Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens either side of Romelu Lukaku in attack. They came up against an England side using a 5-2-3 when out of possession.

Belgium looked to build from the back patiently, circulating possession across the defensive line in search of a way through their opponents. England used attacking midfielders Mason Mount and Jack Grealish to press Belgium’s outside centre-backs, while Harry Kane focused on Youri Tielemans, who operated predominantly as Belgium’s deepest midfielder. Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice then picked up Axel Witsel and any of the front three who dropped into midfield.

Belgium found some success by using centre-back Jason Denayer as the spare man in the build-up, with Kane forced to move out to Denayer, leaving Tielemans free. Belgium took advantage by then moving De Bruyne and Mertens inside to create a 4v2 overload against Rice and Henderson.

On the occasions when Belgium played through the outside centre-backs, they created diamonds along with a wing-back, the ball-side central midfielder and the wide attacker. This shape allowed for one-touch combinations and blindside movements to progress play up the pitch.

The hosts were also happy to play direct to Lukaku in attack, and he did a good job of retaining the ball, holding play up and setting the ball back to midfield. A ball to Lukaku’s feet triggered both forward runs beyond him and a supporting run close to him; his play with his back to goal was very effective and England struggled to contain him throughout the game. England almost always sent a centre-back with Lukaku when he dropped to stop him from turning, but the Belgian used his upper body well to hold off his marker.

Despite some promising build-up play, Belgium didn’t offer much threat to the space in behind England’s defence and they didn’t create many good-quality chances, with their best chances coming on the counter-attack. However, the two goals they scored inside 23 minutes meant there was little need to attack and they were happy to let England have the ball.

In pictures

In possession: England

England were set up by manager Gareth Southgate in a 3-4-3 formation, with creative midfielders Jack Grealish and Mason Mount operated in support of centre-forward Harry Kane. Belgium used a 5-2-3 when out of possession.

England used a similar strategy to their opponents in that their wide attackers moved inside to create a four-player box with Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice around Belgium’s two-man midfield. This created opportunities to try and penetrate Belgium’s first and second lines by finding the feet of Mount and Grealish with direct passes. Belgium’s outside centre-backs were happy to step up and track the England wide attackers to ensure that they couldn’t turn and advance.

Belgium’s strategy came with risks in that the centre-back left space for England to exploit in behind, but the potential reward of the centre-back stealing possession and launching a counter attack – as seen for the first goal of the game after Jan Vertonghen stepped in front of Mount to win the ball – meant the risk was worth taking.

When England’s attacking midfielders dropped to receive the ball, their wing-backs made movements in the opposite direction, with England hoping to disrupt the Belgium defensive line and create space in behind for the wing-back.

When England moved the ball out wide or into the half-spaces, the outside centre-back on that side of the pitch – Tyrone Mings on the left and Kyle Walker on the right – often made a forward run off the ball to join the attack in the final third. This is an approach that has rarely been seen in international football from teams using a back three but perhaps provides an indication of where Southgate is looking to go with this formation with next summer’s delayed Euro 2020 tournament in sight.

England looked most threatening when they found Grealish’s feet. The Aston Villa midfielder was arguably the best player on the pitch and Belgium resorted to any means necessary to stop him, resulting in him winning a lot of free-kicks in the final third, but England failed to take advantage of these dead balls. Both Grealish and Mount were free to roam in attack and it wasn’t uncommon to see them both on the same side of the pitch as England looked to create overloads in the final third. Belgium crowded England out effectively in these situations, so England often switched play before delivering a ball into the box.

Another of England’s tactics was to find Kane, who regularly dropped back to receive a pass to feet as well. Kane’s hold-up play, protection of the ball and ability to turn led to him fashioning a few chances for himself, but with so many players willing to drop deep, England struggled to stretch the play and impact the space in behind the Belgium defence.

Despite dominating possession, England lacked quality in the final third and, as a result, failed to create many chances of significance and failed to test Thibaut Courtois. Southgate will hope that the return of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold – all absent here – will see improvements made in this area of the pitch. On this occasion, England failed to make their dominance of the ball count.

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