Youri Tielemens’s deflected strike and a superb free-kick from Dries Mertens put the hosts in full control after 23 minutes, and the world’s number one nation survived a second-half England push to remain top of the group with one match remaining.
Southgate has persisted with a 3-4-3 formation this season, reasoning that England need a more compact ‘Plan B’ against the top sides.
The system limits the number of attacking players England can field and, by extension, their creativity.
England’s three centre-backs were protected by a midfield two of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice in what felt like an overly-defensive approach, even considering Belgium’s quality.
There is obviously logic to Southgate’s caution.
After a nine-month gap without international football and a new-look squad from September, it would be unrealistic to expect England to play as a cohesive and fully functioning attacking unit.
Yet there was plenty to question in their approach in Leuven.
In the absence of injured pair Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, Southgate left Jadon Sancho on the bench and started with Jack Grealish and Mason Mount either side of captain Harry Kane.
Kane has excelled this season with quick runners ahead of him – notably Heung-min Son at Tottenham – and neither Mount nor Grealish (impressive as they are) offered pace and penetration in behind, particularly against a one-paced Belgium back three.
“There’s no doubt that in this system, you’re losing another creative player,” said Jamie Carragher on co-commentary for Sky Sports. “You have to have pace in the front three. Harry Kane is flying at Tottenham because he’s got Son.”
There were some encouraging moments of link-up play between Kane and Grealish in particular but all of the front three looked happiest dropping into the cramped No.10 role.
Southgate responded at half-time by introducing Harry Winks for Jordan Henderson – a like-for-like swap which did not seem to address the root of England’s problems.
The visitors did improve after the interval, forcing Belgium on to the back foot and exposing the inadequacies of their defence. Thomas Meunier struggled with the twin threat of Grealish and substitute Bukayo Saka, while Kane started to bully his Spurs teammate Toby Alderweireld.
With 20 minutes remaining – and three goals needed – Southgate finally rolled the dice, introducing Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Sancho for Mount and Kieran Trippier.
Even then, Southgate persisted with the system rather than switching to a 4-4-2 and Calvert-Lewin – one of the purest centre-forwards in the Premier League – played off the right flank, while Sancho operated as a right wing-back.
Southgate’s instinct for conservatism at this level is based on sound logic – just look at the way Didier Deschamp’s France won the 2018 World Cup – but it feels like the England manager is getting the balance wrong at present and failing to play to his side’s true strengths.
Grealish dazzles… again
Despite England’s early deficit, Grealish played with a joyful freedom, leaving Belgium chasing shadows and clearly concerned by his directness and trickery.
He was fouled repeatedly and his finest moment came late in the second half, when he flicked the ball over the head of Meunier with his heel, leaving the defender for dead and trying desperately to bring him down.
If sublime displays in friendlies against Wales and the Republic of Ireland were not enough evidence of Grealish’s quality at this level, his performance against Roberto Martinez’s side is surely enough to convince his remaining doubters and end the debate over his role for England.
Before this international break, there was still a question of whether Southgate would pick the Aston Villa playmaker.
Now the only question is where England should play him in order to maximise his talent.
Chilwell latest England player injured
The relationship between Premier League clubs and country will be further strained if Ben Chilwell‘s injury proves serious.
The Chelsea left-back hobbled off after 35 minutes holding his lower back in a worrying development for Southgate and Chelsea boss Frank Lampard.
Joe Gomez’s knee injury, which could sideline him for the season, has offered more ammunition to critics of international football during this relentless season, while England confirmed before kick-off that Raheem Sterling had also suffered a problem.
For Chilwell, an injury on his first England appearance in a year would be particularly frustrating, coming after a fine start to life at Chelsea after joining the club with a foot injury in the summer. It offered another opportunity to Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, who as it stands is the leading contender to be England’s second left-back at next summer’s Euros.