England have been searching for statement victories under manager Gareth Southgate to answer allegations that they are the flat-track bullies of international football. In recent years they have sustained a habit of making very short work of teams they beat – especially in those gloriously untroubled qualifying campaigns – only to come up short when faced with the elite when the pressure is on. Remember the feel-good factor of the run to the World Cup semi-final in Russia in 2018, placed in sharp and painful relief by the fact they deservedly lost to the best teams they met, Croatia in the last four in Moscow and Belgium in both the group stage and the third-place play-off? Remember when they did pull out an outstanding result to beat Spain 3-2 in the last Nations League in Seville two years ago, only for reality to bite back when they lost 3-1 to the Netherlands in the semi-final?
So what are we to make of the 2-1 victory over Belgium, the world’s top-ranked side, in the Nations League at Wembley? This win was not a statement England can shout loudly from the rooftops but it is certainly one Southgate and his players can talk about with great satisfaction. England can talk up their ability to beat the best – although both sides were without key individuals – but there must also be no going overboard because they have had these brief moments in the past only to fail to take off. What may delight Southgate most here is that England achieved this win without playing in sparkling fashion – in fact for most of the first half they were disappointingly negative and outplayed by the quality of Roberto Martinez’s side.
There is an art to winning when nowhere near your best and England have developed a little bit of that under Southgate. If other countries are hailed for such perseverance, an ability to capitalise on moments of good fortune, then it is churlish not to praise England for displaying the same qualities here. They deserve that praise – but let’s not kid anyone.
This was not the greatest game anyone will see, played out in an eerie, empty Wembley with the likes of Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Dries Mertens missing for Belgium, Raheem Sterling out for England and captain Harry Kane only available as a substitute.
It was not the sort of England performance to have rivals breaking out in a cold sweat – but they got the job done against the country ranked best in the world, inflicting a first defeat in 14 games on the side which boasted the best record of any European nation in Euro 2020 qualifying.
It was also England’s first win against a side leading the Fifa rankings since they had a 1-0 victory in Spain in 2011.
In other words, there was lots of good news and lots for Southgate and England’s players to enjoy.
There will be times when they will have to play with a greater sense of adventure, when Southgate’s team selection will have to be bolder than it was here, when they may not get that sprinkling of good fortune that saw Mason Mount’s 64th-minute winner take a wild deflection off Toby Alderweireld to loop over Simon Mignolet.
This is for another day. Southgate can point to the end justifying the means and England now top Nations League Group A2, with Denmark to come at Wembley on Wednesday.
Southgate’s side had slices of luck here but the trick is to cash in and England did exactly that.
The hosts made the most of their equaliser and in the second half looked organised, solid and resilient, restricting Belgium to one opportunity for Yannick Carrasco and avoiding any late scares as they closed out the win in relative comfort.
Kyle Walker did well in a three-man central defence and while England’s formation looked unimaginative and lacking ambition in midfield in the first half, with Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson at its hub, it worked once they got themselves into the game and provided great protection as it progressed.
The message is a clear one.
England cannot get carried away by this one victory against a fine Belgium side. The lessons of history provide a guard against that and there would still be huge question marks against this England defence against the best opposition when the heat of tournament football is at its most intense.
It is, however, a very good win when not at their best.
England may not have created waves of excitement but there is a lot to be said for grinding a victory out, especially against a team like Belgium.
And this means Southgate and his players have every justification for regarding this as a good night’s work.