UEFA Nations League 2018/19: What England's loss to Spain implies
England's performances at the World Cup in Russia raised the expectations of the fans, who sang praises of their national team with phrases like 'It's coming home' dominating the airwaves and the papers alike. It wasn't to be, however, as England fell to eventual finalists Croatia at the semi-final stage, going 2-1 down after extra time.
There was widespread disappointment all over England, as they had hoped that their lads would repeat the same trick last seen in 1966, when England defeated West Germany to lift the coveted prize for the first time. The truth, though, is that for the England fans to think that they were going to win the World Cup was far too unrealistic.
England are simply not good enough. They have some elite footballers, the leading of whom is Harry Kane, the best No. 9 in the Premier League without a doubt. Other than that, though, the rest are not world beaters. Rookie goalkeeper Jordan Pickford performed admirably, but is nowhere near world class. Kyle Walker is a world class right back, but Gareth Southgate played him at centre back. Kieran Trippier was arguably England's standout performer at right back. His marauding runs down the right were absolutely eye-catching and the resultant pinpoint crosses were a marvel to watch. His beauty against Croatia, a curling free-kick into the top right hand corner, was the best highlight of his glittering performance. His place in the team was clearly justified.
Raheem Sterling's continued selection was up for debate to many. His effort was clear but the fact that he failed to score a single goal and the controversy that surrounded him in the lead up to the tournament made for an unending debate about. Generally speaking, England simply didn't have a good enough team to launch a meaningful assault on the global tournament in Russia.
It is true that they finished 4th in the tournament, but we must admit that they rode their luck right from the time the draw was made. Being drawn in the same group as Belgium, Tunisia and Panama, it was in their favour that they would at least finish second in the group and they did. They then faced Colombia in the round of 16 and Sweden in the quarters. All those teams England would successfully navigate past with relative ease. But the true worth of the England team was highlighted in the third group game against Belgium. England were dominated by the Belgians and eventually fell to a wonder goal by Man United reject Adnan Januzaj.
So many people shrugged off the loss as meaningless, as the two nations had already progressed to the next round. But after failing to beat Croatia in the quarters and Belgium again in the third place playoff, it was a reminder that England had not yet arrived as many had thought. The fairytale Gareth Southgate had enjoyed had to come to a cruel end at some point during the tournament; and it did. Against Croatia and Belgium, England's lack of quality was badly exposed. The two nations are blessed with highly technical players with the capacity to control the game in the middle of the park, unlike England.
Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Moussa Dembele (who isn't even a starter) and many others. Such players are a sharp contrast to Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whose technical ability is nowhere near that of their opponents. The only player who could come close to that quality is Jack Wilshere, who was ignored by the England manager despite showing signs of complete recovery.
Against Spain on Saturday, once again England failed to master a win against an elite team. They went down 2-1 to Luis Enrique's Spain at Wembley. They spent most of the time chasing shadows as Spain used their clear cut technical superiority to control possession in the middle of the park. England were made to wait for opportunities on the counter and from set pieces. The goal Marcus Rashford scored was a typical counter attack, while Welbeck had a goal disallowed from an aerial ball into the area. Without the ball it was always going to be difficult for England to win against Spain.
Gareth Southgate played a three-man defense with Luke Shaw and Keiran Trippier playing as wing backs. This means that without the ball, the wingbacks would drop back to form a five-man defense. This left a huge void for the Spanish full backs, Marcos Alonso and Danny Carvajal to make relentless forays forward to cause massive problems to their hosts. If Southgate had formulated a system that would allow the wing backs to stay on the front foot and press the Spanish full backs, he would probably have been able to stifle their attacks. The 4-3-3 system Spain employs works perfectly when full backs fly to provide width down the flanks and that is exactly what happened.
Gareth Southgate failed to provide any answers to the threat posed by the full backs and neither was he able to counter the high level technique Luis Enrique's midfield were offering. They were able to take charge if the proceedings from the first whistle to the last. The lack of the technique has been England's Achilles heel for a long time. Their production line must focus on producing players with such technique if they are to match their more elite counterparts.
At present, England must offer all the support needed to Jack Wilshere rather than neglecting him. He is the only one with the technique to dictate play from deep. He needs to feel loved, to get the trust of his manager, that's why not taking him to the World Cup in favour of Loftus Cheek was a huge mistake by Gareth Southgate. In that game against Croatia, at some point England needed a player who could give that one pass out of nothing to carve open the Croatian defence but there wasn't any.
England should borrow a leaf from the way Germany took care of Sebastien Deisler until he retired from international football. It is not Wilshere's problem that he keeps getting injured. He needs to be shown all the support he deserves by Southgate and the England fans alike. He is the immediate answer to their midfield woes.
The long term solution is to completely overhaul the way players are educated so that England starts to produce players of the quality of Xavi, Iniesta, Modric, Koke, Rakitic, Pirlo, Kroos, etc. Without that, England's struggles are bound to continue.