Spain – England: England’s clinical attack stuns high-flying Spain (2-3)
England’s forwards put Spain’s defense to the sword in the first half, giving England a three-goal lead. After the break, England stood strong against Spain’s attack for the most part, although they may have been slightly fortunate to hold their lead.
Luis Enrique could barely have hoped for a better start as Spain manager. He began with a 1-2 win over England at Wembley, and a few days later his team demolished World Cup semi-finalists Croatia 6-0. Those results put them at the top of their Nations League group going into this game.
England did not win a competitive game since their 2-0 victory over Sweden in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Russia. Granted, these games have all been against strong opposition, but it shows that The Three Lions are not in their best shape. In the 0-0 draw against Croatia, Gareth Southgate moved away from the 3-5-2 formation that brought England to the World Cup semi-finals, instead experimenting with a 4-3-3 shape.
Southgate has stated that this formation change is partly because of England’s fresh batch of young and talented wingers. The only personnel changes compared to the game in Croatia were the introduction of Joe Gomez and Harry Winks in place of John Stones and Jordan Henderson, who were both serving suspensions.
Luis Enrique set Spain up in his preferred 4-3-3 formation. After being rested for the game against Wales, regulars such as Nacho, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Marcos Alonso, Thiago Alcántara, Marco Asensio as well as Rodrigo Moreno returned to the side. Wolves wing-back Jonny Castro Otto also came in, replacing César Azpilicueta at right-back.
Team shapes when Spain had possession. Sterling and Rashford were given slightly different roles as wingers in this defensive system.
Tactical similarities in possession
There were similarities in how the two sides executed their 4-3-3 formation in possession, particularly with regards to the rotations between the full-back, central midfielder and winger on each side.
This made both teams’ shapes in possession quite flexible. England did not have a large amount of possession in the game, but patterns were still identifiable. Usually Kieran Trippier would push up on the right wing, while Winks would drop deeper to cover and get involved in the build-up. Meanwhile, Raheem Sterling had a large amount of freedom, not only coming off the wing to roam between the lines, but also dropping into deeper midfield positions on occasion to provide an extra passing option.
There were similar relationships on the left between Ben Chilwell, Ross Barkley and Marcus Rashford, where if Barkley pushed up, Chilwell would stay deep, and vice-versa, with Rashford’s positioning also being based on that of Chilwell and Barkley, allowing England to stay balanced in possession.
For Spain, these wing rotations have also clearly been something emphasised under Enrique based on the games played so far. On their right they had the triangle of Jonny, Thiago and Iago Aspas. On the left they had Alonso, Saúl Ñíguez and Asensio. They followed a similar rule to England, where they would always have one player in a defensive position, one player occupying the wing and one player between the lines, and the players would occupy these roles flexibly.
Both sides could also be seen temporarily shifting into a back three at various points throughout the game when both full-backs would push up, and either Dier or Busquets – who also regularly do this for their club teams – dropping into the defensive line. For a game between two national teams, the switching of positions and passing by both sides was quite impressive throughout the first half.
England exploit aggressive Spain press
Spain were not afraid to commit players forward when pressing. They started their pressing in a 4-5-1, but either a central midfielder or winger would push up when England’s central defenders had the ball. If of the wingers had pushed up, either the nearest central midfielder or the full-back would be responsible for covering the space that he had vacated in the wide area.
England’s first goal came after one of those aggressive high presses from Spain, who essentially had their whole midfield committed to a man-to-man press deep in England’s half. As Aspas had stepped up onto one of England’s centre-backs, Jonny, the right-back, was now marking England’s left back Chilwell. England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford hit a driven pass under pressure to Harry Kane near the halfway line, in front of the Spanish defense. This space was open partly because of Busquets’ engagement in the high-press.
The obvious choice was to play in Rashford on the left to exploit the large space Jonny had left behind. Rashford then played a through-ball into Sterling, and the winger powered the ball into the top corner to put England 1-0 up.
Sterling’s role means defensive asymmetry
England started in a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 defensive shape. As the game went on, they maintained this formation, but generally dropped their defensive line deeper as the game went on. One interesting detail was the small differences in the way Sterling and Rashford interpreted their roles as wingers in this defensive system.
When Spain had the ball, Rashford got close to Barkley to prevent passes between the lines when needed, as well as tracking Spain’s right back Jonny when he went forward. A side effect of this was that Barkley had to step out and press Nacho due to Rashford’s deeper starting position.
On the other side, Sterling stayed slightly higher up, which often left a larger distance between himself and Winks. When England dropped into deeper defending, Sterling would also often stay a bit further forward, and leave it to Winks to cover the space on England’s right. This meant England resembled a 4-4-2 at certain points when defending.
In transition from defense to attack, Sterling could be used as a counter-attacking threat with his speed and dribbling ability. Not always having to drop far back would mean that he’s closer in support of Kane when the ball is won, and he should be able to conserve more of his energy for attacking. His higher positioning in England’s mid-block did however mean that Spain were able to find entries in behind England’s midfield due to the gap between him and Winks, as well as using switches to the left flank.
Despite these role distributions, it was Rashford who was able to support Kane when on of those counterattacks came for England. After another aimed long ball from Pickford, Kane did well to hold the ball up one-versus-two against Nacho and Ramos. Nacho dropped off as Ramos pressured Kane, and Rashford ran in on his blindside If a defender looks one way, an attacker can try to make a run behind his back, on the side where he is not looking. This is called the blindside. to receive and make it 2-0.
England’s third goal soon followed, where Nacho and Ramos were both caught ball-watching. Kane ran in behind Ramos, Sterling peeled off Nacho as the chipped pass from Barkley to Kane travelled through the air. Kane squared it for Sterling, and England were 3-0 up in the first half, proving that you do not have to shoot a lot to create high quality chances.
England hold onto lead as Spain gain momentum
Just over ten minutes into the second half, Enrique made a double substitution, introducing Dani Ceballos and Paco Alcácer in place of Saúl and Aspas. Almost immediately, Alcácer, currently in red-hot form, got on the scoresheet for Spain from a right-sided corner kick. The goal is disappointing from England’s point of view, given their impressive set-piece record. Barkley completely failed to mark Alcácer’s darting run to the near post, leaving the Spaniard free to send a glancing header past Pickford.
Spain gradually began to pile on the pressure as they chased the game, and England’s box became increasingly under siege. Spain were now less focussed on the balanced wing rotations outlined earlier and understandably threw more players into higher zones. Both full-backs were pushing forward, and Ceballos was giving presence between the lines. Thiago and Busquets built the game from deep, along with Ramos’ advances from left centre-back.
Southgate made the decision to switch to a 5-4-1 with around fifteen minutes to go, Kyle Walker coming on as a central defender, replacing Barkley. The formation change was likely intended to ensure that England didn’t get overloaded on the last line by Spain’s attack, and to allow them to defend the penalty box with three centre-backs. Nevertheless, Spain did pull another goal back to make it 3-2, when Ramos outmuscled Walker to head home Ceballos’ cross.
England’s first competitive win since beating Sweden came in the match where it was perhaps least expected. They played out from the back well in the first half, creating high quality chances and had a solid plan to stop Spain from getting into their own penalty area.
An interesting aspect aside from the result itself is that Southgate made the decision to change systems during a game. Not doing so was heavily criticized after England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia. Having said this, choosing Walker as the centre-back when aiming to reinforce the penalty box defense against crosses was perhaps not the ideal choice.
Spain’s winning start under Enrique comes to an end with this result. They may feel unfortunate – they probably should’ve had a penalty and they hit the bar late on. The fact they conceded three times from five shots in the first half should be a concern, because they were all open chances. Enrique will have to ponder how his team aims to stop those counterattacks in the future.
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