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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Gareth Southgate channels club tactics as England record long-awaited win over elite opponents

'We had to start getting wins against big teams', said the England manager and that's exactly what the World Cup semi-finallists did in Seville

England manager Gareth Southgate with Raheem Sterling after the Manchester City winger scored twice in the 3-2 win over Spain. EPA
England manager Gareth Southgate with Raheem Sterling after the Manchester City winger scored twice in the 3-2 win over Spain. EPA

After the breakthrough summer, a statement result.

When England went 3-0 up in Seville, many a mind turned to the 5-1 victory in Munich in 2001. The eventual margin of victory, 3-2, was altogether narrower and with Spain registering 24 attempts at goal, striking the woodwork and being denied a penalty, that lead could have been overturned.

Yet it was nonetheless arguably the first time since the 2002 World Cup, when Argentina were beaten, that England defeated elite opposition in a competitive game.

“We had to start getting wins against big teams,” said England manager Gareth Southgate. Another box was ticked. He keeps getting vindication for his youthful revolution. Whereas Southgate has been swift to discard some of England’s older players, he persisted with Raheem Sterling during a three-year spell where 27 internationals yielded no goals and just four shots on target. Two goals in 23 minutes followed.

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Yet a focus on the headline act can obscure the underlying causes. "We showed a lot of courage playing out from the back and a couple of our goals came from it,” said Jordan Pickford, whose distribution enabled England to beat the Spanish press.

The goalkeeper also delivered among the most important of the 17 passes that led to Sterling’s opener, even if his confidence in possession looked like cockiness when he tried a Cruyff turn, tugged Rodrigo Moreno in the penalty box and somehow escaped punished.

But Southgate explicitly wanted a footballing goalkeeper. If Pep Guardiola’s decision to discard Joe Hart was more contentious, the England manager has copied him. And over the past few days, Southgate has again worn his influences on his sleeve.

If the danger was that the World Cup would leave him looking a man who had one excellent idea and struggled to unearth another, he has found – or appropriated – another.

If the influx of foreign managers prevents their English counterparts from getting the top Premier League jobs, Southgate has derived other benefits. His swap from 3-3-2-2 to 4-3-3 has owed much to the club game.

If England’s narrowness meant their shape resembled Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea, the way their wingers ran beyond the striker had echoes of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Harry Kane has dropped deeper more often for Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur this season and he contributed to all three goals, recording two assists. It made it a footnote, not a concern, that he is now on his longest England goal drought. Sterling and Marcus Rashford compensated.

England counter-attacked brilliantly and defended valiantly. If another example of Joe Gomez’s precocity was an illustration of Southgate’s ethos, another came when Nathaniel Chalobah made a late debut.

A veteran of four minutes’ league football this season, but the best part of a century of England games at other levels, Chalobah showed how the manager is drawing on the age-group teams. It highlights a belief in England’s system, even when their players are marginal figures at club level.

If understanding can come from years playing together in international teams, unity seems another asset. The suspended Jordan Henderson travelled to Spain, watched with the fans and celebrated in the tunnel.

Perhaps he would not have done it for a friendly; perhaps another character would not have done it at all. But it is a safe assumption that Henderson is glad he was there, just as, whatever rookies like Harry Winks and Ben Chilwell achieve in the future, they can always put one night in Seville on their CVs.

A side with an average age of 23 managed something England had never done in any of their lifetimes and won in Spain. Overcoming Colombia and Sweden in the World Cup had huge significance but it ranked as the best one-off result of Southgate’s reign.