England put on a counter-attacking masterclass in a 3-2 victory to give Luis Enrique his first loss as Spain manager.
The summer of 2018 will be one England fans won’t forget after Gareth Southgate led the Three Lions to the semifinals of a major tournament for the first time since 1996, and the first time in a World Cup for 28 years. It was a huge success for the country and the England DNA project masterminded by Dan Ashworth and Southgate, even if Colombia were the best side they managed to beat.
UEFA’s introduction of the Nations League has allowed them to quickly build on that platform with competitive matches against some of the top international teams in Europe. England were unlucky to lose their opening fixture at home against Spain in September, but managed to get a draw against Croatia away in an empty stadium in Rijeka on Friday, a repeat of the semifinal from the summer.
The match away in Seville against Spain was seen as a free pass for England, considering World Cup finalists Croatia were beaten 6-0 by the same opponents. However, England’s new 4-3-3 system passed the test with flying colors, as England were able to absorb pressure and take advantage of Spain’s disorganized high defensive line to come away with the victory.
Harry Kane dropped deep from his center-forward position and effectively worked as an advanced playmaker, while Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling made runs, from out to in, beyond him. England’s first goal came from a patient passing move mainly in England’s own half. The ball went back to Jordan Pickford, into Kane and then Rashford before arriving at the feet of Sterling, who finished expertly passed David de Gea. All 11 players were involved in the move.
La Roja looked helpless as England added two more before halftime. They were able to recover some semblance of pride in the second half with a stirring fightback that fell just short. The link-up play of England’s front three contrasted sharply with their counterparts, who just lacked rhythm in the final third even though their buildup play was solid. It shows how Southgate’s attention to detail on the minimal areas maximizes his side’s chances of coming away with a result.
As the pressure mounted, Southgate reverted to a back three, as he had used in Russia, though this time it was more 3-4-3 than 3-5-2. Sterling and Rashford tracked back to make it a 5-4-1 without the ball, helping to limit Spain’s space on the wings and prevent the overloads that proved so costly against Croatia in the summer.
Southgate had the right idea with the tactical switch, although there are still some question marks about Kyle Walker’s suitability as a center-back. Then again, with John Stones suspended, the alternatives were an uncapped Lewis Dunk and Eric Dier, who’s better in midfield. Walker had some shaky moments defending crosses, but coped well enough.
In the summer, England were able to put away lower quality opposition with the ambitious 3-5-2 system which utilized sharp passages of play as well as clever off-the-ball movement to create high-quality chances. With the 4-3-3, they now have a proven and tested method for dealing with teams that are expansive and dominate possession. This newfound tactical versatility is perhaps the most impressive development of Southgate’s reign so far.