After the high of the World Cup, Gareth Southgate's squad were given a reminder that finishing fourth in Russia is not a true reflection of their status
Nations League defeat to Spain highlights England's shortcomings against the elite
Realists do not require reality checks. England’s progress to the World Cup semi-final had not convinced Gareth Southgate that they were among the planet’s top four teams. Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Spain rather reinforced that. “I am pretty realistic as to where we are at,” the England manager said. “This group of players achieved a result that was beyond where we were at the time.”
If England benefited from a favourable draw in Russia, it feels as though Group 4 of the Nations League was designed to highlight their shortcomings. A side without a proper playmaker have been pitted against two countries, in Spain and Croatia, with a surfeit. Without the retired Andres Iniesta and David Silva and the dropped Koke, Spanish trio Sergio Busquets, Saul Niguez and Thiago Alcantara still ran the game at Wembley. England may yet have got a draw – Danny Welbeck’s injury-time leveller was wrongly ruled out – but Spain’s superiority was apparent for long periods.
Perhaps there was a role reversal in elements of a match where England scored from a passing move that began at the back and spanned the length of the pitch, and Spain, courtesy of Rodrigo Moreno, claimed a winner from a free kick. England, the World Cup’s set-piece experts, were beaten at their own specialist subject. Yet a first competitive loss at Wembley since 2007, as England suffered three consecutive defeats for the first time since 1988, came in more familiar fashion: they were out-passed and outclassed.
“We aren't able to keep the ball well enough when we are pressed extremely hard,” Southgate said. He has ruled out a return to the dark days of direct football. The remedy is improvement, but hampered by personnel restrictions.
Southgate bypassed the absence of an English Thiago or Luka Modric for much of the World Cup, using dead-ball expertise, systemic cleverness and defenders who were comfortable in possession. Yet Spain formulated an answer to that shape, turning Southgate’s 3-3-2-2 formation into a 5-3-2. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard were turned from off-the-ball runners in possession to men less adept at tracking back and impersonating defensive midfielders. Spain engineered a situation where their full-backs, Dani Carvajal in particular, were often the spare men. It was telling that the Real Madrid right-back set up Saul’s equaliser.
If Luke Shaw was partly culpable then – and the Manchester United left-back’s eventful return to the international scene culminated in a head injury after a collision with Carvajal – his inch-perfect pass for Marcus Rashford’s opener represented the highlight of England’s night. Encouragement could be drawn from the way two who came into the starting 11 offered most cause for optimism. It underlined that Southgate’s model of evolution, not revolution, represents the sensible approach. England cannot magic a Thiago into the team when there is none.
They had a different sort of pedigree. Yet while Harry Kane was presented with the World Cup Golden Boot, he scored more goals in Russia than he completed passes on Saturday – six to five, for those who were keeping count. Two of those five nevertheless led to chances for Rashford, one a goal.
But his six goals in Russia came against Tunisia, Panama and Colombia, and while the South Americans were overcome on penalties and Sweden beaten in the quarter-final, England have arguably not beaten a top team in Southgate’s reign. Depending on the definition, they have not defeated one of the established powers in a competitive game since they faced Argentina in the 2002 World Cup. Having rewound the clock already this summer, Southgate needs to again in the autumn. At least he should be under no illusions about the difficulties.