It wasn’t particularly pretty but England for the most part achieved what they set out to do. Victory over Belgium was at least some form of response to September’s defeat by the Netherlands, the Lionesses thankfully laid to rest their run of five games without a clean sheet, and three points will of course be advantageous if they are to realise their Nations League ambitions.
It all started as if England were going to make a convincing statement and Sarina Wiegman would immediately be vindicated for her decision to revert to a tried-and-tested back four. Defeat by the Netherlands was difficult, and accepting the issues with the experimental formation undeniably brought about some progression.
Niamh Charles, one of the players introduced for this game, sprinted down the left-hand side and immediately carved out an opening. Her teammates couldn’t convert, she could only fire over after receiving the rebound, but if that was to set the tone for the night’s proceedings then it would have been an incredibly positive one for the Lionesses.
What followed, however, didn’t quite send a statement that England are back to form. They were the better of the teams – that is undeniable – but their dominance came with hefty caveats.
Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp’s early work in the final third was promising, their eyes constantly looking goalwards as moments of individual spark created chances.
Hemp had an effort beaten away by Nicky Evrard, and, although a seemingly perfect chance dropped at her feet, Ella Toone couldn’t set herself correctly to tap home the rebound; England were eager but lacking in sharpness.
But instances of defensive worry were allowed to seep through and the Lionesses were lucky that they weren’t made to pay. Tessa Wullaert met a failed clearance and launched a deep cross into the hosts’ box, Justine Vanhaevermaet leapt highest to head goalwards, and were it not for the quick reactions of Mary Earps to bundle it away England would have gone behind.
Wiegman’s side made sure to respond, however. Open play hadn’t been particularly fruitful but a set piece presented a chance to make amends.
Millie Bright nodded against the woodwork, Hemp prodded home. England were ahead, the sell-out King Power crowd had their time for jubilation, and few would argue that the lead was undeserved.
This was an England performance notable for its peculiarity – on paper they didn’t play particularly badly and they got the result over the line, but there’s still a lingering feeling that something still isn’t quite right.
Take their reaction to going ahead, for example. They continued to hold the ball, they kept looking for chances to create paths behind the now compact and incredibly deep Belgian back line, but their dominance of the game made little difference.
Their periods of attacking fluidity where the creative brilliance of this England side was able to shine through came about in bursts, not regularly sustained waves of pressure. At times it was as if they were content with going through the motions, passing the ball around and hoping that they could slowly grind down the visiting defence.
On occasion they did manage to spot the gaps, like when another Charles run made its way to Hemp and the latter spotted Alessia Russo, but the final product was nowhere to be seen.
There were a handful of other positives after the introduction of Jess Park and Fran Kirby from the bench as the game moved towards its conclusion, but few were particularly troublesome for Evrard.
England were, of course, on top throughout their encounter in Leicester and there were no glaring failures, but this certainly wasn’t the most persuasive of displays.
Maybe there was an element of selflessness holding the true brilliance back, creative ideas repressed for the sake of following a near-robotic routine which gave the impression the individual hunger wasn’t quite there.
Maybe it’s hard to inspire that hunger in a group stage encounter when you’re the favourites to come out on top across both legs, but beating Belgium was far from predetermined.
Or maybe some credit has to be given to Ives Serneels for the way his team mostly stifled England, foregoing their own desire to go forwards to instead have bodies sitting back.
Whatever it was, the eventual product was a long way from perfection.
Perfection isn’t a necessity if England are to ensure Team GB qualify for next summer’s Olympics, but it wouldn’t go amiss. They need to top their group – which they are at least now doing – and then reach the final for that to occur.
If winning without the dazzle of old does the job then in the end the intricacies of the performances will be insignificant – all that matters is achieving the final goal.
Can England really afford to allow their standards to remain as they are? That is the pivotal question, and the simple answer is that they probably can’t.
On another evening Belgium might have seized their chances on the break, the Netherlands will likely do that when the two play at Wembley next month. Continuing in such a fashion isn’t entirely sustainable.
At least the Lionesses got it over the line in Leicester; now they have just five days before they have to do it all over again in Belgium.
Their Nations League group is tight and any potential slip-ups have to be avoided. England thankfully did that on Friday and they’re going to have to do it again.