Gareth Southgate insisted Jack Grealish has proved himself as an England player despite defeat in Belgium.
Aston Villa captain Grealish was England’s best player despite the disappointment which means Southgate’s men now cannot go any further in the Nations League tournament.
It was Grealish’s first competitive start after Southgate finally bowed to pressure to pick the in-form Villa midfielder, and the England boss admits he now belongs in the best company.
Southgate said: “We couldn’t have been happier with what he did. He should be really proud of his performance – he really stood up against as tough an opponent as you could face.
“I think firstly as a person since he’s come into the camp, he’s impressed us with his approach, curious to find out what we’re looking for from him and has taken that on board with his performances in training and in games.
“He’s transferred his club performances into international football tonight against a top level opponent.”
On Grealish’s performance, Southgate added: “I saw what I knew I would see in somebody with bravery to play. I think he took the ball in tight areas, his techniques were good.
“He took players out of the game. We know he wins a lot of free-kicks which of course he did. I just thought he was outstanding. He should be absolutely delighted with the way he played.
“I sort of explained to him what we wanted to see when we brought him in in September. I think it’s been helpful to him to bed him into the group so that he knows the way we want to play and the players get an understanding with him.
“And today was a great game for him, for us to see him.”
Grealish himself added: “Absolutely loved it. I think for me this is what I’ve been waiting for.
‘These are the games I’ve dreamt of playing in – against the No.1 team in the world. I absolutely loved it out there.
“I’ve grown up my whole life wanting to play for England and I think everyone that knows me knows that I love playing football.
“Overall it’s a team game. We wanted to go out there and win tonight and devastated that we didn’t get the win.”
England captain Harry Kane was also impressed with Grealish.
Asked how good the Villa skipper is, Kane said: “Fantastic player. Really like him. Really like training with him.
“It was great to get out there on the pitch with him today.
“You can see his qualities on the ball, he wants to get on it. One v one, he’s always looking for that pass forward which is great for a striker. Really positive signs.
“He’s been in great form for his club as well so he’s just got to keep his head down, keep working hard, and I’m sure he’ll be getting plenty of opportunities in and England shirt.”
Southgate was also pleased with the performance of Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, who replaced Ben Chilwell towards the end of the first half.
“I thought Bukayo to come into a game like that as a young player, in a difficult moment, against a very strong opponent, I thought he too showed a lot maturity, a lot of quality on the ball. There were some huge positives for us.”
Southgate insisted England deserved more after going down to two first-half goals from Youri Tielemans and Dries Mertens.
The England boss said: “The scoreline does feel harsh. We don’t like losing football matches but i have got to give enormous credit to the team. I feel we were excellent.
“But I cannot fault the attacking play up to the last chance or last pass a couple of times. We created far more opportunities than at Wembley.”
Jordan Henderson went off with “muscle tightness” at half time, Ben Chilwell suffered a back problem, while Raheem Sterling will also miss Wednesday’s game.
With England now unable to progress, Southgate suggested players could be under pressure from the clubs to pull out of Tuesday’s Wembley clash against Iceland.
“We will find out a lot now because for sure there will be pressure from some clubs on their own players.
“That is what we live with constantly but we have players who want to play for England and we have pride in the way we play and we want to finish well.”
Southgate confirmed that he did have coronavirus last month, but said he is now fully recovered.
“I did have the virus. I was fortunate because I was not as serious as so many people in our country but it’s not pleasant, not something you choose to have, but everything’s fine now,” said the Three Lions boss.
Sign up to the Mirror Football email here for the latest news and transfer gossip.