England reign in Spain ending 30 years of pain
Raheem Sterling scores twice as England win in Spain for the first time since 1987
England’s Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring his side’s first goal against Spain. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA Wire.
Spain 2 England 3
Where to start? It was a wild night under the lights of Seville and, ultimately, these are the kind of moments England ought to cherish. Any win against Spain is to be celebrated but to overcome one of the world’s most refined teams on their own soil makes this, without any exaggeration, one of the great nights in England’s modern history.
It was the night when Raheem Sterling, in the space of 22 first-half minutes, doubled his England goals tally from the previous six years. Harry Kane’s run without a goal is now seven games but, seriously, who really cares when he plays this effectively? Marcus Rashford added England’s other goal, all coming in the first half, and when Spain gave everything to pull off a remarkable feat of escapology Gareth Southgate’s players held out - just - in the face of an onslaught.
Even more remarkably, this was England’s youngest team since 1959. Southgate’s starting lineup had an average age of just over 23 and only one player, Kieran Trippier, above 25. Sterling, notably, was the most experienced of England’s first-team picks, this being his 46th cap. It was also, without question, his finest performance and a reminder why Southgate has persevered with him during the long periods when he has found it difficult to replicate his Manchester City form.
Sterling had not scored for England since a Euro 2016 qualifier against Estonia in October 2015 but his performance here, in particular the opening goal, was a fine riposte to his critics. The move had originated all the way from the back with England’s goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, playing the pass that initiated the counterattack. And, after that, the tone was set: it was the closest England have come to their own brand of total football since the 5-1 win in Germany in September 2001.
The sight of England taking a three-goal lead inside the opening 38 minutes was certainly a sensation given Spain had won their previous Nations League tie 6-0 against Croatia. Luis Enrique’s players streamed forward in the opening exchanges and, in those moments, England’s supporters in the most vertiginous sections of this wonderfully retro stadium might even have been deceived into fearing the worst.
Would the narrative of this match - England’s first in Spain since 1987 - have taken a very different line but for that freakish save, four minutes in, when Pickford inadvertently kept out Marcos Alonso’s far-post effort? Pickford’s save - with the back of his head, not looking at the ball and having already dived at thin air - was an unorthodox piece of goalkeeping but it was a key moment bearing in mind what was to come when England’s players settled down and took control in a way few people could ever have anticipated.
To put it into context, Southgate had spoken on the eve of this match about his belief Spain could have won the World Cup but for the departure of their manager, Julen Lopetegui. Yet it was difficult to remember the last time Sergio Ramos, for one, had looked so vulnerable during the wonderfully slick exchanges when England’s new 4-3-3 shape, with Sterling and Rashford either side of Kane, fully flowered. England’s three attackers all rose to the occasion, with Kane involved in all the goals. Behind them, Eric Dier had his best game for some time. Harry Winks slotted in impressively and Ross Barkley played much more confidently than he had in Croatia three days earlier.
Southgate might even reflect his team should have scored more during that period of the first half when they threatened to open the Spanish defence with a regularity that was, frankly, bordering on absurd. Kane and Rashford set up Sterling to elude a wonky offside trap and sweep in the opener. Rashford’s goal also originated from Pickford picking out Kane with a speared kick up the pitch. Kane peeled away from Ramos and his pass was beautifully weighted for Rashford to slip his shot beyond David de Gea, his Manchester United colleague.
With not even half an hour played, that was extraordinary enough but it was also very clear that England were greedy for more. Spain, in stark contrast, looked like a group of players in need of smelling salts and it would get even worse for the hosts before the interval. Again, Kane played a decisive role. Barkley’s clipped ball picked him out at the far post and Kane turned the ball across the six-yard area to leave Sterling with a close-range finish.
Ten minutes into the second half, the first oles were drifting from the section of this old concrete bowl that was decorated in St George’s flags. Most of those supporters might have wondered beforehand whether England were going to be relegated from League A. Now they celebrated with chants of “we are staying up” and queried, en masse, whether their opponents might be Scotland in disguise.
Except it was inconceivable England would have everything their own way. Spain hit back with a brilliant header from Paco Alcácer, one of their substitutes, at a 58th-minute corner and soon afterwards Pickford got in an awful tangle, losing the ball to Rodrigo inside the penalty area, then slide-tackling him to prevent another goal.
England came under such concerted pressure for the rest of the match that Southgate brought on Kyle Walker and switched to a back five. Southgate also brought on Nathaniel Chalobah for his debut as a late substitute and when Ramos headed in Spain’s second goal, seven minutes into stoppage time, it was the last act of the night.