England’s hopes of qualifying for the Nations League finals were ended by defeat against Belgium in Leuven.
Gareth Southgate’s side had plenty of possession against the world’s top-ranked side but were toothless in attack and ultimately undone by two early goals.
Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans opened the scoring after 10 minutes when his 20-yard shot took a deflection off Tyrone Mings, and Dries Mertens doubled their advantage 13 minutes later with a superb free-kick after Declan Rice was harshly adjudged to have fouled Kevin de Bruyne.
Belgium’s second came after Romelu Lukaku had headed off the line brilliantly from Harry Kane, and while England spent much of the second half in their opponents’ half, they were unable to fashion the opportunities to work their way back into contention.
Defeat means England will not reach the finals after finishing third in 2019, when the inaugural showpiece was held in Portugal.
In the other match in group A2, Christian Eriksen scored twice to give Denmark a 2-1 victory over Iceland.
Meanwhile, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson was replaced at half-time as a precaution, while Chelsea left-back Ben Chilwell limped off on 38 minutes with an apparent back injury.
Grealish makes his mark
England were without the injured Raheem Sterling, giving Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish the opportunity to build on the fine early impression he has made at international level.
He emerged as England’s outstanding performer and driving force, drawing a succession of fouls from Belgium.
Irrespective of the result, Grealish can feel highly satisfied with his own individual display, which followed his impressive performances in the friendlies against Wales and the Republic of Ireland.
It also gives Southgate a pleasant problem. It has often seemed as if Grealish has had to convince Southgate of his pedigree at this level, and while the manager may still prefer a front three of Kane, Sterling and Marcus Rashford if all are fit and in form, he now has other options.
Is England’s system too negative?
Southgate again went with a system of five at the back – and once again it looked like the formation left England short of pace and creativity.
For all the possession England enjoyed, Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was hardly worked in any serious fashion.
Southgate can point out, with justification, that England were without the thrust of Sterling and Rashford, but there is still a balance to be struck and on the evidence so far this has not yet been achieved.
Belgium did not seem unduly concerned – almost allowing England to have possession in the second half – and comfortably exacted a measure of revenge for their defeat at Wembley in October.
‘Grealish had an outstanding game’ – manager reaction
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez: “It was a really good game of football, two strong teams who know each other very well and played each other four times since the 2018 World Cup.
“We got the early lead then we had to suffer and see the press and risk that England took. We could not utilise that in our advantage and we defended really well and showed a good focus. That pleases me a lot. You need to give credit to England, they did very well in the second half and pushed us high up.”
England manager Gareth Southgate: “We don’t like losing but enormous credit to the team. All the way through they created problems and defended resiliently. I thought we were excellent. I couldn’t have enough praise for the players.
“We had a different profile of players but in those positions, I thought Jack Grealish had an absolutely outstanding game. Losing Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, we lose a lot of speed. But I can’t fault the attacking play until the last chance.”
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The best of the stats
England have lost back-to-back competitive internationals for the first time since losing three in a row from July to September 2018, a run that also included a defeat by Belgium.
This was Roberto Martínez’s 50th match in charge of Belgium and their 39th win under him, losing just four (D7).
This was England’s 10th defeat in 48 matches under Gareth Southgate, making him the first manager to lose 10 matches with the Three Lions since Sven-Goran Eriksson, who lost 10 of his 67 games in charge.
Belgium have won each of their last 11 competitive home internationals, scoring 48 goals and conceding just four in this spell.
England conceded two goals from outside box in a single game for the first time since June 2017 against Scotland, and were two goals behind at half-time in any international for the first time since August 2009 in a friendly against the Netherlands.
Tielemans scored his third goal in 33 senior internationals for Belgium; he has three goals in his last five appearances for club and country, as many as his previous 46 combined before this.
Lukaku has been directly involved in 19 goals in last 13 appearances for Belgium (15 goals, 4 assists).
Kane became the first player to make 50 England caps while playing for Tottenham Hotspur, and the first outfield player to make his first 50 England appearances all while at the same club since John Terry with Chelsea.
England host Iceland in their final Nations League match on Wednesday (19:45 GMT).