There were some fairly harsh reminders of where England really are in the global pantheon during their Nations League defeat by Spain on Saturday night.
Not one of England’s midfielders was a patch on their Spanish counterparts in terms of technique, close control or pinpoint incisive passing. England’s players are some of the best in the world, of course, but when it comes to such precision, it was clear they are still some way off.
There must be something in the hotter climes and the siestas because Spain have created those kinds of players for fun over the last two decades while in England nobody can find one, despite the self-proclaimed most competitive top-flight in football. What England manager Gareth Southgate would give for a Thiago Alcantara, Sergio Busquets or Saul Niguez and Spain started all three.
And for Southgate there is not necessarily an obvious game-changing midfielder on the horizon as he attempts to live up to the natural hype of reaching a World Cup semi-finals back in the summer, even if youth coaches across the country are trying hard to produce them.
“The only one in my lifetime is Paul Gascoigne and I’m not sure he was developed, I think he was a consequence of a unique talent,” Southgate said, reflecting on the gulf between Spain and his England squad after that defeat. “I think what is happening at junior level is that there is more emphasis on technical ability, there is more, right from five, six, seven year olds, emphasis on being able to handle the ball and play.
“We’re seeing that with some of our junior teams. But we can see there’s a period of time for those players to come through. We can see there’s a few players around our squad that have the ability to do that but Spain have had a production line for a long period of time.
“Look at those who have gone and those that come into the team. Of that type of player, they’ve produced more than any other team in the world.
“I guess Gascoigne had belief in his ability in the end. When you’ve got that supreme confidence because you know you can receive under pressure and you know that you can dribble past people, pass past people, in any nation over the last period of time he was the standout player. In the end you know you are capable and willing to have the ball against any opposition.”
Some would argue that the overflow of foreign players filling the Premier League and the clubs academies are the issue, but Southgate does not believe that would have prevented Gascoigne, pictured inset, breaking through. “I think an outstanding talent like him would,” he said. “I think it’s impossible to say, but I think he would.”
The problem for Southgate is he ultimately overachieved at the World Cup with the group of players he had. There was the fortunate run of fixtures, not once beating a so-called “big” nation during the tournament. There was that bit of luck, beating Tunisia in stoppage time and knocking out Colombia on penalties. What could become painfully clear in the next few months, with England set to play Switzerland, eighth in the world rankings, in another tough friendly tomorrow, then Croatia, who beat them in the semi-finals, and Spain again in the revamped, more intense Nations League, is just how much England overreached.
Southgate has always been aware of it, but that uncontrollable beast of mass public perception could be in for a shock. England had not lost three games in a row in 30 years until Saturday, although how many times had they played the World Cup runners-up (Croatia), third place (Belgium) and a side in the world’s top ten (Spain) in a row? They have never once in their history lost four.
“If anybody wasn’t aware of it, then yes [it is a reality check],” Southgate said. “But I don’t think we were under any illusions as a coaching team. We know there’s a distance to go until the very top teams. At moments we compete and we look like being able to create chances. We have created some good chances against Spain. But there’s a level for us to go to and that’s a really good challenge for us over the next couple of years.
“I knew this three-month period would be an exceptional challenge and will tell us a lot about exactly where we stand, but I think that’s good for us. We’ve got to go through those games, we’ve got to go through those experiences otherwise we would go into a finals tournament in two years’ time… if we were just playing qualifiers now against a lower standard opposition on the back of the result, the outcome in the summer, we might have a perception of where we are which is false. I think after the next few months we will be very clear.”
Southgate’s men got off to the perfect start here, with Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford finishing off an incisive move after 11 minutes. But the feelgood factor was punctured moments later when Saul Niguez powered home a Rodrigo cutback. Then, with a little over half an hour gone, Rodrigo himself scored what proved the winning goal by redirecting a Thiago Alcantara free-kick into Jordan Pickford’s net.
England thought they had rescued a point right at the end of the Group A4 contest but substitute Danny Welbeck was adjudged to have fouled David De Gea before he tapped home.
Earlier, Manchester United full-back Luke Shaw had left the field on a stretcher following lengthy treatment from more than ten medical staff after a collision with Dani Carvajal. Shaw’s head crashed off the Spaniard’s hip and then bounced off the turf, causing obvious concern around the stadium. Southgate yesterday reported the player was “doing fine”.