Raheem Sterling at the double as England come of age with famous win over Spain
Spain 2-3 England: Sterling and Marcus Rashford scored as England took a commanding lead, with late goals from Paco Alcacer and Sergio Ramos proving too little too late
A night when so many records were broken and real ground may have been broken by this brilliant young England team.
This 3-2 was the truly convincing England performance that the World Cup didn't quite feature – the country’s first win in Spain in 1987 and Spain’s first home defeat since 2003. But it was oh so much more. And so much more than a half-competitive Nations League game, regardless of that context and the fact this group is now in the balance.
It might well have been England’s best performance in years, but also such a promising statement for the future. That this was supposed to be an experimental starting XI featuring just one player over the age of 25 - Kieran Trippier - made it all the more exciting, and almost as astounding as some of the fantastic football that led to those first three goals.
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The age only showed in how they couldn’t quite stop a previously slack Spain reclaiming control of the ball and the game in the second half, but just meant they showed they could pass a very different type of psychological test in a situation that was always going to be inevitable in a match away to a side who had been on such sensational form before this.
Against that, it instead seemed inevitable that England would just get more and more in a jaw-dropping first half. They looked like the team that had scored 12 in their previous three games. They looked like the team who could score at will, and would, as they went into a frankly amazing 3-0 lead. They looked so good.
It also looks like Southgate himself is maturing, such was assertiveness with which he decided to go with this 4-3-3.
This was another great virtue of the night. Whatever about the debate regarding where this match ranks in history, there is the more enjoyable debate about who had the better night. Southgate, whose big decisions all paid off, as this team starts to take off? Raheem Sterling, who so raucously scored twice in an important individual performance? Harry Kane, who proved he doesn’t have to score to be effective, and was instead supreme in a completely different role?
No one was mentioning the fact he has now gone seven games without a goal has any relevance in the aftermath? Marcus Rashford? Joe Gomez? Ross Barkley?
There was just such an impressive force and assertiveness about England in general, with the tone set by Sterling’s finish, and the team very much set off.
This was a player performing without hesitation, and a side performing without doubt. That was what so striking: the focus. Southgate has got his tactics and formation so right, and it led to some laser-accurate lightning moves, especially with the first goal. The variation of angles and styles to a mere three passes that traversed the length of the pitch made it all the more thrilling, before the glorious abandon of the finish.
Pickford found Kane with a supreme Frank De Boer-style ball, Kane swiftly fed Rashford, he immediately played a slide-rule pass before Sterling hit an effort of such effervescent power that De Gea couldn’t even react.
The finish instantly drew comparisons with Michael Owen against Argentina but this very quickly developing into a night making a history of all its own - while showing such promise for the future. The goal was all the more important to the pattern of the game because it allowed England to further ensnare Spain in what was evidently a masterful tactical plan.
While this was a supreme English display of what the Spanish would themselves describe “verticality”, there was also such a perfect balance to Southgate’s side.
His decision to abandon the World Cup’s 3-5-2 for a more “mature” 4-3-3 was here fully vindicated. England just looked so much more mature, something all the more remarkable given that youth of the side.
The defence was able to rather comfortably absorb Spanish possession, while their attack found they could cause chaos in the home backline at will, with so many devastating balls in behind.
And it’s not like England were doing this by bypassing the midfield as in the World Cup, either. Quite the opposite. They were more than willing to get the ball to there and particularly to Kane. There are some who know the striker who say he actually thinks he is better as a number-10 rather than a number-nine, and this was a display of why.
Kane did even better for the second goal, taking down another perfect Pickford ball, adeptly holding off two Spanish defenders and then playing his own perfect ball through to Rashford. Unlike against Croatia, the Manchester United forward wasn’t making any mistake this time. Neither were England.
They were just getting better, to the point you could also have a reasonable debate over what was the game’s best goal, what was the game’s best pass. Barkley offered up a contender for the latter with a luscious arched ball for Kane, who then flicked it on for Sterling to tap home his second.
Against all of this, it must be said that Spain had really dropped off and just weren’t on it. That could be so visibly seen with how Marcos Alonso just raised his hands appealing for offside with two of the goals, reflecting a slackness that sometimes made it so easy for England.
It’s just that a fully on-it England were also making it so difficult for Spain.
Luis Enrique had to change something, if only to bring some intensity, and introduced someone on intensely good form. Paco Alcacer has nine goals in five games for Borussia Dortmund and Spain before this, and immediately continued that. He had been on the pitch for a matter of seconds, before scoring with his first touch, a plundering header from a Marco Asensio corner.
This was why it was an even more important match for England.
Having displayed their developing technical quality, they now had to show their mental quality, to rise to a different type of challenge.
The previously imperious Pickford almost failed one early such test. Having fumbled the ball for the corner for Alcacer’s goal, he then dallied when the striker was close to him, allowing his pocket to be picked.
He then tried to stop Alcacer scoring what seemed a certain goal, but with what seemed a certain foul. Pickford had his arm around the player, but the referee didn’t point to the spot, despite heated protestations.
Energised, Spain were finally playing the football of the past few games, that had been so missing from the first half. They might also rue missed chances, as they hit the bar late on before Sergio Ramos brought them back to 3-2.
That might be put forward as a caveat to this match. It shouldn’t be, not when England had so ruthlessly punished them in the first half, and then so resiliently passed a very different type of test in the second.
It was a night of numbers, but they’re nowhere near as important as the feeling from it. And everything around England now feels very promising, and - maybe for the first time - properly convincing. This obviously wasn't as much an achievement as anything in the World Cup, but it was a better performance than any game in the World Cup.