Spain give England post-World Cup reality check with Nations League win
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Spain's 2-1 win over England in the UEFA Nations League at Wembley on Saturday.
1. Spain give England a dose of post-World Cup reality
Spain gave England a World Cup reality check at Wembley as first-half goals from Saul and Rodrigo overturned Marcus Rashford's early opener to claim a 2-1 Nations League victory in Luis Enrique's first game in charge. Having reached the semifinals at Russia 2018 before losing to Croatia in Moscow, England's return to action was an unhappy one, with Spain dominating for large parts of the game before emerging with their first win on English soil since a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford in February 2007.
Before the game, England coach Gareth Southgate had warned that his team still had much to prove on the international stage, claiming that the country's winning record against world football's elite has been "non-existent" since the World Cup success in 1966. And once again in a competitive fixture, England failed to beat a team regarded as one of the major nations.
Rashford's opener, following an 11th-minute Luke Shaw cross, hinted at a performance and result that would extend the team's post-Russia honeymoon period. But Saul equalised within two minutes and enabled Spain to gain the upper hand before Valencia forward Rodrigo netted at the near post to make it 2-1 on 31 minutes.
England then lost Shaw early in the second half after a collision with Dani Carvajal that left the Manchester United defender requiring lengthy treatment on the pitch before being carried off on a stretcher. The FA told members of the media after the match that Shaw was "fine and walking and talking in the dressing room".
The home side went close twice through Rashford in the closing stages and were unfortunate to have a late Danny Welbeck goal ruled out for an apparent foul on David De Gea, but Spain held out to make a winning start to the Nations League.
2. Luis Enrique makes an instant impact as Spain coach
Luis Enrique knows all about taking on a talented team that has performed well below its level, having lifted Barcelona from their post-Pep Guardiola slump to become Champions League winners again, so managing Spain will not faze the 48-year-old.
It is a similar challenge with La Roja, who crashed out of the World Cup in Russia at the round of 16 after the shock exit of coach Julen Lopetegui days before the start of the tournament. For all of the distractions in Russia, Spain's multi-talented squad should have done much better, and Luis Enrique has inherited a group of world-class players who could easily win Euro 2020 in two years' time.
Winning his first game in charge against England gives Luis Enrique a perfect start, and even with the recent retirements of Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and David Silva, he still has great quality to work with.
Thiago showed at Wembley that he can fill the void left by Manchester City midfielder Silva, with the Bayern Munich man dictating the tempo of this game. Isco and Saul also offer threat in attacking positions, while Marcos Alonso more than justified Luis Enrique's decision to overlook Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba. Diego Costa, unavailable for the this game, will return to add menace up front, while Alvaro Morata's recent upturn in form will also work in Luis Enrique's favour.
The loss of Pique may prove a problem, with Spain having no obvious replacement, but with Sergio Ramos still dominating the Spanish back four, even the absence of Pique might not be an issue.
3. Southgate influence shown by England turnover
While England have changed little since their run to the World Cup semifinals, with nine of the starting 11 having played in Russia during the summer, the turnover during Gareth Southgate's two-year reign in charge was evident in this game.
When England last faced Spain at Wembley in November 2016, during Southgate's four-game run as interim manager after Sam Allardyce's dismissal, it was an altogether different team that lined up for the hosts. And such has been the revolution under Southgate, only eight of those in the 23-man squad for that fixture in 2016 remain involved almost two years on.
The likes of Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, Jamie Vardy, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere have all gone, with Wayne Rooney -- not involved that night -- also no longer in the picture. John Stones, Danny Rose, Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier and Jesse Lingard have all gone on to become key figures under Southgate since facing Spain the last time around, though, and the new-look England came within a whisker of reaching the World Cup final for the first time since 1966 in Russia.
They ultimately fell short, but Southgate was brought in to pull England out of its international malaise, and he has succeeded.
However, Spain showed at Wembley how far England still have to go before they can count themselves as a serious international force. They are getting better, but there is still plenty of work to do.