So, the lesson from Wembley, and maybe for any tournament going forward. Hard work beats talent when talent gets a bit wasteful and sticks out a leg that brings a huge, lucky deflection.
That in turn should not deflect from England’s issues in general play, but does point to a few ways Gareth Southgate can work around them. Mason Mount’s winner – although it may yet go down as an own goal – was just as timely from an individual personnel perspective, given the wider debate about Jack Grealish, and how he should replace the Chelsea playmaker in midfield.
This 2-1 victory over Belgium was a strange game, in an odd setting, but yet still an entirely logical outcome. On watching it, you wouldn’t be left under much doubt that Roberto Martinez’s side are a level above England. Maybe a few levels. They just look more likely champions of any tournament, even if the match also exposed a few problems of their own. You can see why they are No 1 in the world, even if they didn’t fulfil it. The greatest significance of all might be a potential injury to Kevin De Bruyne, although that will really be Manchester City’s concern, rather than Belgium’s. He had of course been at the centre of all his side’s best attacking.
Belgium should really have had much more goals than Romelu Lukaku’s penalty, and been out of sight by the time that Jordan Henderson “won” a spot kick for England, for Marcus Rashford to celebrate his MBE with.
He has been trying to come up with a proactive system to maximise England’s abundant attacking talent, but there remains a strong argument that in games like this – that is to say, the games against the top opposition that will really decide tournaments – the side actually benefits from a more pragmatic approach.
But if Southgate’s side can’t play to Belgium’s level, especially in midfield, they can work around it. This is what they did in this very game.
They adjusted and adapted, and ground their way through to gradually look like the more deserving winners. That is not to be dismissed, even allowing for the strange circumstances. These are exactly the type of games England are supposed to be using for adaptation and evolution like this… for lessons.
It may illustrate a certain dilemma to be solved.
There was a period in the game when Belgium looked so comfortable, and thereby so far ahead of England, that it looked like they were showboating. Thomas Meunier delicately chipped the ball over a desperately flailing English leg to pass the ball to a teammate. Yannick Carrasco was pulling off performative stepovers in Jordan Pickford’s box, almost inviting defenders to take it off him.
While they would rue such indulgence, that was actually complemented by some really cutting-edge attacks. That’s how superior they were for a time. Belgium were just going for England, scorching through that overloaded backline at will.
The first half-hour made them look about three goals better than England, which was all the more pointed given they had five regular starters – including Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois – missing.
England did adapt, though, and this is the grand dilemma. It is almost the irony of Southgate’s entire time in charge.
What’s more, that is simply always going to be the case while England lack passing midfielders of true international class. They will always be outmanoeuvred in that area, so they have to try and work around it. They have to adapt.
It was why there was a symbolism in Mount forcing the goal that put England 2-1 ahead.
Because this – almost literally – is where Grealish comes in.
The question will persist about why Southgate doesn’t put full faith in a player that looks England’s most technical midfielder, not to mention whether the system here was overly defensive.
It kind of feels like the manager is in something of a bind himself. He wants to be progressive, but his instinct is pragmatic.
There’s a constant push and pull over what will win out, but the latter won this game. England accepted their limitations, worked around them, and forced a winner.
It may not be pretty, and may not ever make England as “good” as Belgium.
But international tournaments don’t work like league tables. The best team only occasionally wins. You can use the nuances of knock-out football to your advantage.
You need bounces of the ball. England, and Mount, got a big one here.