The Warmdown: Masterful Southgate selection stuns Spain before panic seeps from an improbable position
(Photo by Jose Breton/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Warmdown: Masterful Southgate selection stuns Spain before panic seeps from an improbable position

England were impressive offensively but nervy in defence.

Chris Lincoln

Unbeaten in 38 games at home, spanning across 15 years, the concept of England even defeating Spain in their own backyard seemed unlikely, let alone netting three times in a stunning opening 45 minutes.

Tight midfield and electric wide players

Yet the way Spain played, a recognisable set-up for a number of years gone by, fell perfectly into the hands of Gareth Southgate and his tactical approach.

For all of the hosts’ technical ability in midfield, Thiago pulling out the fancy flicks and tricks, too often the tempo was not quick enough. The Spurs duo of Harry Winks and Eric Dier were able to shield their back four with relative ease in the opening stages, supported by the energy and willingness to impress of Ross Barkley, arguably in the shape of his career.

However, Southgate’s deployment of two speedy wingers in a 4-5-1 cum 4-3-3 formation was the real stroke of genius. It was a risky ploy, changing the approach that England were successful with during the World Cup and putting two attack-minded wide players into a position where they would have to do their share of defending, but it certainly paid dividends.

Finding space through the channels behind lost full-backs

The approach hinted at success against Croatia with Marcus Rashford finding space twice and denied when one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Yet Southgate stuck to the tactic, well aware that the Spanish full-backs, both at Premier League clubs, would bomb forward at every opportunity. In return, England ensured they had a tempo about their passing, progressing efficiently and accurately at every opportunity.

It was Raheem Sterling who received the first opportunity of note, finding space behind the opposing defence that was uncommon during the World Cup when he filled a number ten role. Playing out on the right-wing, Sterling backed his unrivalled pace on the shoulder of left-back Marcos Alonso to burst clear and finish with confidence.

With Spain hunting an equaliser amongst the backdrop of an expectant crowd, right-back Jonny then found himself out of position. Harry Kane was excellent in his hold-up play, waiting for the run of Rashford who left Jonny treading water behind him. Like Sterling, Rashford put recent criticism behind him to strike with confidence. The England coaching staff appear to have worked wonders with those two over the weekend.

The next goal looked to be crucial…and the visitors stunned Seville again just moments later. This time it was Kane peeling off the last man’s shoulder and springing the offside trap through the channel. Eric Dier picked a perfect pass and the Spurs captain was able to pick out an unmarked Rashford, again slipping in behind the back four with full-backs out of position.

A word of caution – England need to learn how to defend leads…

Such a display was sparking the nationwide feeling of patriotism that spread across the country in the summer. But the trademark English panic soon returned with the visitors almost looking uncertain at what to do when 3-0 ahead against such an established side.

Dropping deeper and deeper, a feature of their World Cup performances, the visitors invited pressure from their opponents and a Spanish goal was certainly on the cards. All of a sudden, the home onslaught was gathering momentum.

It was arguably a mistake and moment of fortune that proved favourable for the hosts in the grand scheme of the whole contest. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was somewhat lucky not to concede a penalty and the resulting skirmishes seemed to distract Spain and hinder their developing tempo. If the spot-kick had been awarded, as it probably should have, the smart money would be surrounding Spain getting a result from the contest.

Ultimately England held firm...just. Yet they need to learn how to close games out. They lost their Nations League opener to Spain after leading at Wembley and threw away a one-goal advantage against Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. That was after almost slipping out of the competition when Colombia recovered from a goal behind to take the Last 16 contest to penalties.

…and defend crosses

Ironically, considering how dangerous England were at the World Cup when attacking aerially, defending high balls continues to be a problem, underpinned by a late Spanish flourish. Paco Alcacer headed just over before Alonso hit the crossbar and then Sergio Ramos finally converted a consolation with the last touch of the game – all headers.

And these all came after Alcacer exploited poor marking to score Spain’s first goal. It was another England goal conceded from a set-piece, a position responsible for three of their last nine goals conceded.

Work to do but the positives certainly outweigh the concerns...let's remember that England have just defeated Spain, in Spain. Euro 2020 anyone?