And so, when push came to shove, England showed just how far they have to come to compete with Europe’s best. Despite ten wins from ten in qualifying, this showed the difference between Roy Hodgeon and his boys, and the elite.
Spain Dominate As England Search For Inspiration
Spain passed, pressed and kept the ball for long periods, but this incarnation of Marquis Vicente Del Bosque’s Furia Roja is more than just a keep ball team. They probe, they search, they forage, they frustrate, they delve, they patiently wait; this Spanish team play a long and patient waiting game.
By the time England managed to get possession, it was gone. Poor old Michael Carrick, making just his 33rd England appearance, must have wondered why he bothered. Employed as England’s playmaker, he steadfastly stuck to his job; splitting centre-backs Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, trying to show the short option for goalkeeper Joe Hart. Spain had done their homework, with the anonymous pair of Pace Alcácer and Diego Costa at least providing the pressing work rate desired of them by their team-mates.
Andres Iniesta, having a quiet season by his exceptionally high standards, was busy and neat in midfield, tirelessly dropping off of the left flank to provide options to his midfield partners, Sergio Busquets and Thiago. Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcântara was showing the sort of midfield fluidity that has made him one of Pep Guardiola’s favourites until he succumbed to injury in the first half. This was no problem to Spain as they were able to call upon the options of either Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata or Koke.
If only England could boast the same riches in their squad.
It was Cazorla who entered the fray and began where he left off for club side, Arsenal. His control and dynamism seamlessly fitted into the Spanish side; the first half finishing goalless despite Spain’s ball domination
At the break Andres Iniesta made way for Celta Vigo’s in-form forward, Nolito. The 29-year-old Barcelona transfer target made an instant impact, stretching the England defence and causing problems for right-back, Kyle Walker. More substitutions followed for both sides, with Spain showing their strength in depth by bringing on Juan Mata, Cesar Azpilicueta and Pedro; England’s replacements being Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Jonjo Shelvey and Wayne Rooney.
The goal came by the most unlikely source, right-back Mario Gaspar. The Villarreal full-back was starting only his second international match for Spain and scored a cracker to make it two goals in two games. An interception from Raheem Sterling allowed Spain to break, a clipped ball over the top from Cesc Fabregas allowed Mario to acrobatically turn and volley into the far corner of the net, past the despairing dive of Joe Hart.
By this point you could tell England had allowed their heads to drop; all the confidence of their previous ten consecutive qualifying wins had evaded them. This was a proper test and fortunately for the England team, this was the way the travelling fans seemed to treat it. There were no groans from the away support as England time and again surrendered possession, apparently more keen to cede territory and line up in formation than they were to exploit the talents of Ross Barkley.
By the time a second goal was added from the left foot of Cazorla with six minutes remaining, England had given up the ghost.
Spain must improve further still if they are to be in with a shout of recording a fourth victory in five international tournaments. They were missing the injured duo of Sergio Ramos and Juanfran, and still need to figure out who to start up top. Diego Costa isn’t yet firing on all cylinders for Chelsea at present and has only notched one goal in 11 appearances for Spain. Paco Alcácer is one of the players of the future, but surely Juventus talisman, Álvaro Morata, deserves a run up front for his beloved Spain.
For England, this was a serious test; a chance for Hodgson to pitch his wits against a man of the calibre of Del Bosque. The lack of talent at his disposal does handicap him somewhat, but the main issue was the mentality of the English players. Their inability to keep the ball when they did get possession was careless. For players who routinely play good quality football in the domestic league seem to almost become embarrassed when presented with the national shirt.
England and Spain will learn a lot from this friendly: Spain need to get a number nine and stick with him or ask themselves if they can pick a system to utilise the sensationally talented midfielders at their disposal. England, as well as they did in qualifying, need to get to another dimension if they are to hang with the big boys come Euro 2016 this summer.