England finished their summer riding high on a wave of national optimism following an expectation defying World Cup campaign. But the team’s post World Cup form failed to live up to the high standards they set for themselves in Russia. Until last night.
Gareth Southgate asked his players to be ‘bold’ and ‘courageous’ before the game last night. Surely even he wasn’t expecting quite such an emphatic reply. A breath-taking first half display saw Raheem Sterling break his 1,102-day goal drought,
Marcus Rashford then added a second, with Sterling grabbing another before the break. Spain responded through Alcácer and Ramos, but the Three Lions held on for a historic victory.
England finally catch a big fish
England’s world cup performance surpassed the expectations of almost all the fans back home. The team played an attacking brand of football all too absent from the side’s anticlimactic showings at every other international tournament in recent history. The Three Lions boldly went where few England sides had been before. They won a World Cup penalty shootout for the first time ever. They also reached their first World Cup semi-final in almost thirty years.
There was a problem, though. Whenever England faced a side of real quality, they came up short. Yes, the World Cup brought an excitement that had been sorely missed by England fans at previous major tournaments. But the experience was marred by the fact that, whenever England were asked questions by World Class opponents, they failed to come up with an answer. England lost to Belgium twice in Russia and were defeated by Croatia in the semi-finals.
Southgate’s England had lost once and drawn once in their two encounters against Spain before this win. Under Southgate, England had also been unable to emerge victorious from two encounters against Germany, as well as meetings with Italy, Brazil and France. No wonder, then, that England’s manager said his side could not be considered a top team until the day they defeated a world-class opponent. That day was yesterday, and England fans will be hoping for more of the same.
Youth comes good for electric England
At an average age of just over 23, last night’s lineup was England’s youngest team in any competitive fixture for 60 years. And it showed, in the best way possible. England performed with an energy that only young players can. Goal-scorers Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling were dynamic in their movement off the ball. They constantly terrorised the Spanish defence with one sharp counter attack after another.
Harry Winks, 22, and Joe Gomez, 24, replaced the injured Jordan Henderson and John Stones respectively. It was only Winks’ second game in an England shirt and Gomez’ fifth, but both used this opportunity to show the country just how much more is to come. Winks had the second most touches of any England player, while Gomez’ composure in defence added to his fine performances against Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands. Ross Barkley, meanwhile, gave us a glimpse of what he can do with an effortlessly deft pass to Kane in the build up to England’s third goal.
Sterling shines on Nations League stage
But England’s night of redemption was best encapsulated by the performance of Raheem Sterling. Prior to last night’s game, it had been three years, 27 games and 1,810 minutes since the 23-year-old had last scored for England. 15 minutes in, however, his agonising wait came to a magnificent end.
The move started with a brilliant pass from goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, before Marcus Rashford slotted a neat ball through for Sterling’s unwavering finish. The Jamaican-born premier league winner displayed exactly the kind of ruthlessness in front of goal which he was criticised for not showing enough of at the World Cup. Aside from his goals, no England player bettered his tally of 16 passes in the opposition half. Indeed, only Kieran Tripper and Harry Winks had more touches of the ball than his 46.
Sterling’s man of the match performance, however, was most accurately summed up by a post-match moment of reflection from the man himself: ‘three years is a long time not to score, but I am now forgetting about looking nice, and just focusing on getting in behind and causing havoc’.
Room for improvement
High on a mesmerising performance in the first half, England’s fans were injected with a healthy dose of reality in the second. This was undoubtedly a fantastic night for England. On on more than one occasion, however, this young team reminded us of the areas in which they need to improve.
England appeared particularly susceptible to conceding from crosses. The Three Lions failed to learn their lesson after being caught out by a near post run from Sergio Ramos in the first half. Alcácer opened the scoring for Spain with a similar run later on in the match. Added to the injury-time header scored by Ramos late on in the game, this is clearly an area of weakness for England’s inexperienced defense.
Jordan Pickford still flatters to deceive.
The young man from Washington has been a hit and a miss for Everton this season – and so it proved last night. On the one hand, England’s first and second goals were the product of Pickford’s outstanding initial distribution.
Both times, he showed the vision to spot a promising run and the execution to find it with two outstanding balls forward. On the other hand, the England goalkeeper often looked shaky with the ball at his feet. This was most apparent in the 62nd minute, when Pickford was fortunate not to concede a penalty after needlessly putting himself under pressure by Spain’s attack.
Overall, though, this was an evening of celebration for Garth Southgate’s men. Now comes the hard part- turning these nights from the exception, to the rule.