Error-prone England fail to lay down Euro 2024 marker as defensive issues prove costly against Belgium

Jordan Pickford was at fault for the first Belgium goal (Action Images via Reuters)
Jordan Pickford was at fault for the first Belgium goal (Action Images via Reuters)

Jude Bellingham has shown time and time again for Real Madrid this season that he is the man for the big occasion. Gareth Southgate and England owe him a sizeable debt for proving so again.

His stroked finish with the final kick of the game ensure the critics will not come so heavily for Southgate and England now. They were, until Bellingham earned a 2-2 draw with Belgium, staring two defeats in four days square in the face.

His heroics aside, England, it must be said, have done genuine harm to their tag as one of the favourites to win Euro 2024.

Southgate will be keen to remind his critics that he was left with a carcass of a squad for this draw with Belgium, having already negotiated plenty of injury complications ahead of Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Brazil.

That meant naming inexperienced and makeshift starting lineups for both games, with Kyle Walker’s injury 20 minutes into the Brazil game leaving Southgate with a situation he surely never envisaged occurring on his watch: having no right-backs.

Gareth Southgate’s side have failed to convince in either match at Wembley (The FA via Getty Images)
Gareth Southgate’s side have failed to convince in either match at Wembley (The FA via Getty Images)

England’s back-line was as error-prone as it was porous against Belgium. It bodes poorly that only Ezri Konsa — on his first England start — came out with any credit among England’s defenders.

Joe Gomez, on when John Stones went off as a first-half injury precaution, delivered a performance he will never want to watch back, misplacing passes and soon told by Konsa to vacate centre-back and replace him wide right.

Lewis Dunk did similar damage to his chances of making Southgate’s uber-competitive 23-man squad for the European Championships.

Romelu Lukaku had the beating of him when Roma thrashed Brighton 4-0 in the Europa League earlier this month. He did so again, never leaving his side and eating up the ground on him for Youri Tielemans’s second of the night.

His and the game’s first goal displayed yet more concerning defending from Southgate’s side. Jordan Pickford kicked straight to Everton team-mate Amadou Onana, who found Tielemans to tuck home.

Pickford was still making his way back to goal when the ball reached the net — aesthetically as five-a-side a goal as you’re ever likely to see in a prestige friendly at Wembley.

Gaping holes and chances for Belgium to showboat though there were, England were predictably more assured further up the pitch. Even with a deluge of injuries, the trope holds true — they are stronger going forward than they are at the back.

That involved a very impressive full debut for Manchester United 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo, whose close control and turnovers of the ball will have pleased Southgate, who says he is in a “beautiful, innocent moment” of his fledgling career, “lapping up the opportunities as they come.”

Alongside him, Declan Rice was the trusty midfield general he always is as he embraced the chance to become England’s fifth-youngest captain under Southgate on the occasion of his 50th cap.

Demonstrative, certainly, of England’s injury woes was that Rice, 25, and Bellingham, 20, looked the older, storied heads in this hodgepodge of a team.

Besides Konsa and Mainoo, it was only Jarrod Bowen and Ivan Toney, among the fringe players, who pushed their cause to make the plane to Germany.

Toney was unfazed and unerring as he rolled home from the penalty spot. Southgate will no doubt value his ability from spot-kicks as the possibility of shootouts looms this summer.

Bowen, meanwhile, was electric throughout and perhaps the best player on the pitch for either side, had Tielemans not twice breached Pickford’s goal.

Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden, Anthony Gordon, Cole Palmer, Jack Grealish — England have such quality out wide. But Bowen was superb here, and only the tightest of VAR calls denied him a first international goal from a first-half corner.

England rallied in the second half as Belgium tired. Bellingham earned them a draw they deserved, but defensive calamities rankle when a tournament is on the horizon.