For the moment, the headline is all that matters: England beat Spain in Betis and achieved a result which nobody thought possible. The Nations League is in its infancy and nobody quite knows what its relevance actually is, but this was still a precious victory under competitive circumstances.
At their current stage, it’s probably right to treat Gareth Southgate’s England as a team under construction. Prior to this international break, Southgate himself explained that the switch to a 4-3-3 formation was with a mind on the future and with the aim of creating a structure which can house and accentuate the country’s developing talent.
Within that context, Monday night was hugely encouraging. Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford were England’s match-winners, scoring all three goals between them and giving a laudable contribution in every area of the pitch. In the first-half, they were incendiary. They offered a counter-attacking option that Spain never looked comfortable with and raided the pockets of space in defence with tremendous effect. In the second and as their attacking function began to subside, they retreated into their own half and provided valuable defensive assistance as the pressure began to intensify; both players performed some heavy-lifting in that final quarter and, alongside Harry Kane, it probably totalled the most complete front-three performance in years.
It really was a great night. As successful as the World Cup ultimately was, it didn’t bring a headline victory – Sweden and Colombia were capable opponents, Tunisia had their moments, but England didn’t knock over anyone of note on the way to that semi-final. This, then, was a result they needed: Spain are Europe’s form team, they employ a style of play which British teams have always struggled to subdue, and yet they were beaten. In great fashion, too, because England’s first goal was as good a back-to-front move as you could wish to see, a passage of play in which every visiting player touched the ball at least once.
The second and third goals had great merit, too, and it was heartening to see that team operate with such a ruthless flourish. The summer may have inspired plenty of optimism, but there can’t have be many who believed England to be capable of scoring those sort of goals. In fact, all three depended on themes which have been traditional weaknesses: composure under pressure, accuracy in possession, and – for the second and third – patience with the ball.
It was heartening, even if the statistics from the game make ugly reading – Spain had 73% of possession, out-shot England 23 to 5, and were entirely dominant during the second-half. Jordan Pickford was also extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty and collect a red card for his blatant foul, too. No doubt, in time, those details will all be used to asterisk the win and to explain why it was an anomaly rather than actually deserved.
But it’s possible to concede that England weren’t wholly convincing without raining on their parade. Any dispassionate analysis of the game would conclude that England’s passing did decline sharply and that they were also far too eager to retreat into a defensive structure. The good news is that they actually protected their box very well and limited Spain to low-percentage chances, but they did cede possession and, given how vulnerable their opponent had looked, it was unnecessary.
So, while the result was excellent, it wasn’t necessarily achieved under the right circumstances. We want to see an England who are comfortable in possession, who control games and who operate with a certain authority. Last night, there was probably only half-an-hour of that.
But maybe that’s okay. Southgate took positive steps during this international break and his inclusion of Harry Winks in Betis suggested that he is actively searching for the kind of cohesion this team clearly needs. Winks actually played well, too, and vindicated his selection. Nevertheless, that kind of adjustment requires time and, reliably, some of England’s midfield positioning was occassionally wayward and, as before, their use of the ball was sometimes overly-conservative.
Perhaps that’s a two-pronged process, though? Stability will make Southgate’s midfield better and continued selection would certainly incubate the confidence of players like Winks and Ross Barkley. The final destination, however, is probably only accessible through the purging of England’s inferiority complexes. They may currenly have style and technical deficiencies in critical areas, but the greater inhibitor is their belief that they must play in a certain way against a particular type of opponent – and, as long as that persists, it will be very difficult for them to produce an entirely satisfying performance.
On Monday, for instance, it seemed as if England couldn’t quite believe their luck in being three goals ahead and, as a result, they immediately lost faith in what they were doing. It was odd and ertainly difficult to rationalise from a strategic perspective. Spain were mediocre. They looked incapable of defending England’s forward line and yet, once their lead was built, England allowed them to play the rest of the game on their own terms.
This is what has to stop. But, crucially, it’s what will only stop once England have won enough of these games, under any circumstances, to believe that they’re something close to an equal. Until that happens, it seems they will always be the reactive team in the equation, the one which always bends around the other’s strengths.
That, then, is possibly the lens through which to view last night’s win. Not what it was, but what it might allow England to eventually become. The occasion was great, the goals were truly excellent, but the intangibles collected and the stylistic developments which should be encouraged over the long term are of greater value. These players now have a rare annotation on their CV: they have won an international in Spain. Given how young most of them are and that this experience has occurred right at the beginning of their England careers, that can’t not be emboldening.
Maybe, they’ll think, next time they face Spain – or Germany, France or even Croatia – the greater emphasis will be on how they can win the game, not what they must do in order not to lose it. It’s an “earn the right” to play scenario and, hopefully, England are slowly beginning to close in on that privilege.