England flatter to deceive against Spain despite bright start in Nations League clash
A serious football lesson for England, albeit in the midst of some genuinely serious news. The desperately unfortunate injury to Luke Shaw will naturally overshadow a 2-1 defeat by Spain where Gareth Southgateâs side was overcome, overwhelmed and mostly outclassed.
The hope for the Manchester United left-back is that it is does not curtail a spell that has seen his best form since that dreadful 2015 leg-break. The requirement for Southgate, meanwhile, is to take the next step, and show that England did not just temporarily get around their fundamental problems to get to the semi-finals of the World Cup. He needs to show he can actually prope rly solve those problems.
This match emphasised how present they are, even if England were unfortunate to have a late Danny Welbeck strike ruled out.
It would have made the final score someway fanciful.
England still badly struggle against any team with a proper midfield, and thatâs before we even get to the ongoing inability to beat a good team.
That is still one of the many issues that a supposedly transformative summer hasnât changed.
England were also perhaps unfortunate to immediately come up against a Spain who already have changed, and themselves taken on the lessons of Russia 2018.
There was very little of the paralysing ponderousness that so cost them in the psychodrama of that last-16 elimination. Instead, it was replaced by a new directness that new manager Luis Enrique has been so keen to instil as well as a return to their old pressing ways - one of the qualities that really made the 2008-12 side.
It was out of one of Spainâs pressing onslaughts that England ironically opened the scoring. Although Southgateâs defenders had suddenly looked uncomfortable when their space was enclosed, they had just enough battle in them to get the ball free - and allow the attackers to exploit the much more ample space that had opened up in behind.
This youthful pace is one of this Englandâs best qualities in open play, and was something initially amplified by Shaw. Thatâs what made his injury even more unfortunate. Shaw brilliantly set up the chance here, swerving in a fine ball - although one Dani Carvajal maybe should hav e dealt with better - for Marcus Rashford to sweep home.
It was just that this advantage was so quickly swept away, because England still have flaws that Southgate has to compensate for and that are especially susceptible to the elite international sides.
It was also because Spain admittedly showed they'd eliminated some of their own flaws. Their equaliser was not route one, but was born of ruthlessly single -minded play. Carvajal immediately made up for his error by impressively bursting past Shaw and feeding Rodrigo. The forward showed similar force by bursting to the by-line and then cutting back for Saul Niguez, who finished with certainty.
It was exactly the kind of abrasive and assertiveness that Luis Enrique has been preaching, and that had been missing from their World Cup, with the necessary pace almost personified by Rodrigo.
It was then hammered home by Rodrigo, too, as he made that darting run at a free-k ick for the second goal.
That it came from one of Englandâs strengths in a set-piece only fortified the feeling that the qualities that made the summer so joyous are finite, and Southgate still has a lot of work to do.
He attempted to alleviate the amount of work his midfield had to do against that Spanish carousel by eventually bringing on Eric Dier for the wayward Jordan Henderson. That decision, however, only reflected one of Southgateâs own main flaws, and a general struggle with substitutions when a game needs to be changed.
Luis Enriqueâs luscious midfield had by that point taken complete control of the ball, while showing themselves to be a few levels beyond England. This is ultimately the main issue for Southgate, and what most cost them against Croatia in the World Cup.
You can only work around the absence of a midfield by bypassing it for so long. Itâs still the area that rea lly elevates the elite sides, where the elite games are won.
Some of Englandâs hesitancy had to be put in the context of the naturally concerned reactions to Shawâs injury, but the game had already changed long before then.
There were still a few ironies, as Spain actually fell back into the pattern that so cost them in Russia by mostly weaving passing patterns around the pitch rather than killing the game.
And although the big difference this time was that it was a show of power rather than confusion, and that they knew they were in command, it did mean the game was still open.
It was almost level, too, when one slip let in Rashford again. His first touch was excellent, but his second was not, as a poor finish meant De Gea didnât even require the kind of world-class save heâd produced against the same player earlier in the game.
The goalkeeper did require the help of the linesmanâs flag when Welbeck was adjudged to have fouled him for that late disallowed goal. That late surge from England aside, though, anything other than a win for Spain would have been undeserved.
Luis Enriqueâs team still have some learning to do - but nowhere near as much as England.
All that came home here were a few home trut hs.
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