March 24, 2019, 13:49

Spain 2-3 England: Gareth Southgate’s young side come of age

Spain 2-3 England: Gareth Southgate’s young side come of age

England beat Spain 3-2 in the UEFA Nations League on an extraordinary night in Seville. Will this historic victory be remembered as the moment Gareth Southgate’s side came of age?

In his pre-match interview with Sky Sports shortly before kick-off at the Benito Villamarin, Gareth Southgate was asked what he wanted to see from his England players against Spain. His answer was simple. “That we’re brave enough to come here and play,” he said.

Southgate had certainly been brave with his team selection. This was England’s youngest starting line-up in decades – a line-up in which the 28-year-old Kieran Trippier was the only player over the age of 25. But on an extraordinary night in Seville, they came of age. Southgate asked for bravery. In the end, he got that and much more.

Expectations were low and understandably so. England may have gone deeper at the World Cup but Spain were unbeaten in 27 games. Their win at Wembley was still fresh in the memory. Since then, they had smashed six goals past Croatia and four more past Wales. Five of their starters were Champions League winners. England’s had one Premier League title between them.


Watch highlights of England's historic 3-2 win over Spain

England’s failings against top opposition were well documented but Southgate’s young side did not let the weight of history affect them. Instead, they made their own. This was the first time Spain had ever conceded three goals at home in a competitive international game – let alone in one half.

England’s fearlessness was typified by Eric Dier, who was hounding Sergio Busquets within 15 seconds of the kick-off and could be seen crunching Sergio Ramos in his own box soon after that. Those early moments set the tone for a first half in which Spain dominated the ball but England punished their mistakes with brutal efficiency.

England were aggressive without the ball and the opening goal was a perfect illustration of how Southgate wants them to play with it. The patient, 17-pass build-up went through every single player including goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who bypassed Spain’s entire midfield when he drilled the ball into the feet of Harry Kane some 40 yards up the pitch.

From there, every touch was perfect. Kane turned and released the onrushing Marcus Rashford, who controlled the ball with his left foot before threading it through to Sterling with his right. Sterling took the weight out of the pass with his first touch. With his second, he sent it flying into the top corner of the net.

“I think it just shows you the progress we’re making under Gareth Southgate,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp afterwards. “At times we talk our players down, we say, ‘We don’t have this or that, we can’t pass it out from the back.’ We’ve shown tonight against a very, very good opponent that we can do all those things.”

If the first goal showed how far England’s passing game has progressed under Southgate, the second showed they have not lost sight of how to play long. Pickford was crucial again, picking out Kane with a huge punt upfield, and the Tottenham man’s hold-up play was outstanding as he clipped it through for Rashford to atone for his misses against Croatia.


Gareth Southgate praised his side's fearlessness

Harry Winks followed up his fine performance at Wembley with another impressive showing in midfield, wriggling out of tight spaces and retaining possession when England needed it, and there was a purposeful display from Ross Barkley, too. The Chelsea man was brimming with energy and played a key role in Sterling’s second goal with his ball over the top for Kane.

England’s forward players were the stars of the first half, with Sterling scoring more goals in 45 minutes than he had managed in his previous 45 appearances, but it was the defenders who came to the fore after that. Harry Maguire led the way, making more clearances (11) than anyone else, but it wasn’t just about grit and guts.

Indeed, as the pressure ramped up and the atmosphere became fevered, it was noticeable how England’s youngest defenders kept their composure on the ball. In the closing stages, Joe Gomez could be seen striding out of the defence and picking a pass. Soon after that, Ben Chilwell shimmied away from his marker a few yards outside his own box.


Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane give their reaction to victory in Seville

It was exactly the kind of bravery Southgate wanted. England’s head coach deserves immense credit for instilling it in his players, and he should be praised, too, for the changes he has made to his system since the World Cup. England made it to the last four using three at the back, but he has reverted to a back four and his boldness has been rewarded.

Southgate’s late changes underlined his faith in youth, with Nathaniel Chalobah thrown on for a debut soon after Trent Alexander-Arnold’s introduction, but they also showed England’s tactical flexibility. Together with Kyle Walker, the substitutions allowed Southgate to revert to a back three. Pickford was fortunate not to concede a penalty, but England’s game management was intelligent.

Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher described it as a “massive” result for Gareth Southgate afterwards, adding: “The best way to describe it was as a great away performance in the Champions League from one of our top teams: Devastating on the counter-attack, clinical in front of goal, and hanging on at the end.”

It was also, perhaps, a template for England’s future. Southgate can be sure that these young players have the bravery to build on it.

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