IT might have been a three-game period that resulted in England failing to qualify for the Nations League finals, but there were still plenty of positives to emerge from the final international break of the year.

Jack Grealish was finally afforded the opportunity to prove himself on the international stage, and grabbed it with both hands. Phil Foden became the youngest player to score two goals in an England match, Mason Mount shone as Iceland were comprehensively brushed aside at Wembley, Jude Bellingham took his first tentative steps as a fully-fledged international.

The key question though, as thoughts turn towards next summer’s delayed European Championships, is whether any of that will matter come June. Will Gareth Southgate trust England’s new generation of attacking midfielders to fire his side to glory? Or, when push comes to shove, will he revert to type and go for conservatism over adventure? Worryingly, all the signs at the moment point towards the latter.

For all the excitement and goals against Ireland and Iceland, the key moment of the last two weeks was the point at which Southgate submitted his team sheet for the decisive Nations League game against Belgium.

With the two sides going head-to-head for a place in next year’s finals, Sunday’s match in Leuven was always going to be the key fixture of England’s triple-header. Would Southgate be bold and look to take the game to one of the best teams in the world? Not exactly. Sticking with his five-man defence as expected, he paired Declan Rice with Jordan Henderson at the heart of his midfield. To all intents and purposes, England kicked off with seven defensively-minded players on the pitch, plus Jordan Pickford in goal. Little wonder they looked devoid of creativity or an attacking threat until the system was tweaked when they were two goals down at half-time.

When it comes to a game against a leading nation, Southgate’s instinctive response is caution. Rice and Henderson appears to be his first-choice midfield selection for a match that really matters, but you could replace either or both with Kalvin Phillips or Harry Winks and almost certainly end up with the same outcome – an unbalanced line-up with far too many players wanting to shut up shop or pass sideways and not enough players wanting to express themselves to create chances in the opposition’s final third.

There is a separate debate to be had about the merits of playing with a back five – personally, I can see the argument that with England’s wide defenders suited to playing as wing-backs and a lack of a world-class holding midfielder putting pressure on the centre-halves, going with five at the back is the best way of trying to shore up a previously leaky rearguard – but Southgate is clearly wedded to the system and seems unlikely to change tack with just five or six matches before England’s first game at the Euros.

Five at the back doesn’t have to be a defensive set-up – Belgium play that way and seem to have no trouble creating chances – but it quickly becomes a negative formation if both central midfielders want to sit.

In future, Southgate has to pair either Rice or Henderson – the latter would be my preference – with a more attack-minded central midfielder who wants to push on to support England’s forwards. Plenty will clamour for Grealish to fill the role, but Southgate is probably right when he assesses that the 25-year-old is more of a candidate for one of England’s three attacking slots than as a midfielder breaking from deep.

The same is probably true of Foden, although I would argue he boasts all the attributes needed to act as a link between midfield and attack, so as things stand, Mount would deserve to get the nod. The Chelsea player has come on in leaps and bounds in the last six months or so, with both Southgate and his club manager, Frank Lampard, extolling his qualities.

“It was good to see Mason in that central area again,” said Southgate, in the wake of Wednesday’s win. “I thought he made excellent forward runs – our attacking play was very, very good.”

Mount has shown he can do the job against Ireland and Iceland, but Southgate surely missed a trick by failing to discover whether the 21-year-old could be equally effective over the course of 90 minutes against a team of Belgium’s calibre. Come next summer’s tournament, will he regard breaking up Rice and Henderson as too much of a gamble? If so, England’s hopes of reaching a Wembley final might quickly disappear.

In front of the midfield, Southgate was without a couple of his key attacking assets this month. Harry Kane starts no matter what the formation, and a fit-again Raheem Sterling is also a certainty for the team sheet. England’s current 3-4-3 formation suits Sterling, and more than anyone else in the squad, the Manchester City forward is likely to prove pivotal to his side’s chances of triumphing next summer. Kane is a superb marksman, but Sterling is England’s one truly world-class performer.

Marcus Rashford remains favourite to fill the other wide attacking berth, although he will have to hope Manchester United’s rocky form improves as the season progresses. Rashford might justifiably be the nation’s darling at the moment, but he faces competition from Jadon Sancho and probably also Grealish for his starting spot in the England team. At the moment, he deserves to get the nod. Sancho in particular, though, will hope to persuade Southgate otherwise before next summer.

The exciting thing is that an abundance of attacking options exists. The fear is that Southgate will lack the boldness required to make best use of them. If your best players are forwards, don’t start with seven defenders on the pitch.