England Over The Break

Sesha Subramanian reviews England's games against Croatia and Spain over the past week.

Sesha Subramanian
24th October 2018
Image- Wikimedia Commons

Croatia 0-0 England

The first of the two international fixtures for England this past week saw the Three Lions take on Croatia in a rematch of the World Cup semi-final in Russia this summer. Being played in a deserted stadium as part of Croatia’s punishment for the display of a swastika during a European qualifier in 2015, the stadium in Rijeka had a drab atmosphere.

The game itself didn’t produce anything spectacular, although England may feel unlucky having come away with a goalless draw. England moved away from the 3-5-2 that was the World Cup staple and shifted to a 4-3-3 system with Leicester City left back Ben Chilwell making his first full start on the international stage, having made his debut against Switzerland last month as a substitute for Danny Rose. Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling started on either side of Harry Kane while Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley began as the midfield three. Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker joined Chilwell at the back with Evertonian Jordan Pickford in goal.

The unusually quiet atmosphere was a far cry from the roaring cauldron that the two sides faced off in last time and England seemed to make the best of a bad situation. Chilwell nearly set up Sterling for the first goal early on, latching on to a long ball from Maguire before a timely intervention by Josip Pivaric prevented the visitors taking the lead. At the other end, Croatia followed some good, quick movement across the field by nearly taking the lead with Andrej Kramaric connecting on a Pivaric cross, but the miscued shot made for a fairly comfortable save for Pickford. England came closest about two minutes before the break when Jordan Henderson’s corner found Eric Dier who did extremely well to divert his header to the far post, only to for the ball to evade both Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire before hitting the post and bouncing out of danger.

After the halftime interval, Henderson was once again at the forefront of it when his freekick from Croatia’s left was met by Harry Kane, who hit the crossbar with his headed effort. But the best two chances for the English side to take the lead fell to Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford. The first came in the 55th minute from a good run down the right from Kyle Walker, who put him through one-on-one with Croatian keeper Dominik Livakovic, only for Rashford to completely fluff his lines and make it a close escape for the Croats. The second chance was created by another Manchester City player – Raheem Sterling – as he put Rashford through on goal leaving Dejan Lovren wrong footed, but Livakovic pulled off a good save to deny the United striker a third goal in as many games for England.

Neither side created much through the rest of the period but England did have a moment to cheer when Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho made his full international debut, coming on as 78th minute substitute for Sterling. In the limited time he got, Sancho looked lively, unafraid to take on his opposite number and trying to do as much as he could from the right wing.

On a dull night which ended with an equally dull, goalless draw, the highlight was probably Jordan Henderson asking – in very unprintable language – whether Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic was the referee after the latter had called for a foul to be given
against the Liverpool captain.

Spain 2-3 England

No two terms describe the match between England and Spain at Betis better than shock and awe. They can be used to describe the first thirty minutes when England put three past a hapless Spanish side. It can be used to describe how Sergio Ramos and co must have felt when they saw Raheem Sterling finish off a clinical England counter with almost criminal speed and precision. And it can also be used to talk about how English fans felt when their side beat the Spaniards on their own turf for the first time in forever.

With John Stones and Jordan Henderson suspended for this match, Liverpool’s Joe Gomez and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Harry Winks were called in as their replacements in an otherwise unchanged line-up from three nights before. Spain made two changes from the side that beat England 2-1 at Wembley with Wolverhampton right back Jonny Otto making his competitive debut – replacing the injured Dani Carvajal – while Marco Asensio started over his Real Madrid teammate Isco.

Spain started, predictably, as the brighter of the two sides and within minutes Sergio Busquets fired just wide of the post. Almost immediately after, Spain nearly broke the deadlock as a corner – flicked on dangerously at the near post by Saul Niguez – found Chelsea left back Marcos Alonso. Alonso’s bullet of a shot, however, ricocheted off a diving Jordan Pickford (who had no idea about it) and was cleared safely.

England grew into the game following initial jitters and their defensive efforts were rewarded when Jordan Pickford – under some pressure – found Harry Kane with a long pass to midfield. Kane then set up Marcus Rashford on the left wing who found Raheem Sterling with a sweetly placed pass across half the width of the field. Sterling left the Spanish defence biting dust with blistering pace before finding the top corner– well past the reach of David De Gea for his third goal in England colours.

Spain tried hard to come back but it was England who found the net next. Pickford was once again at the helm of it with a long punt up the field to Harry Kane. With the Spanish defenders playing a high line, Kane did well to hold the ball up and find a speeding Marcus Rashford. Unlike in Rijeka, this time Rashford made no mistake as he took advantage of some precarious defending and slotted the ball coolly past his Manchester United teammate David De Gea.

Sergio Ramos and Nacho looked out of sorts all through the first half and it did not help their case when Kane was able to run freely in between them like a child through an open meadow. Ross Barkley duly found him with a delightful chip beyond the Spanish
backline and the England captain set up Sterling for a simple tap in from within the six yard box.

Fans in Betis and around the world were in shock as England led Spain 3-0 at the break. Spanish coach Luis Enrique gave his starting eleven ten minutes to turn the tide before throwing a spanner into England’s gameplan. Borussia Dortmund striker Paco Alcacer (who, interestingly, tops the scoring charts in Germany without actually having started a single game) and Dani Ceballos were thrown in for Saul and Iago Aspas respectively.

With every minute Spain were putting their foot on England’s throats and their efforts paid off when Alcacer headed home from a corner to give them a ray of hope. Spain continued to press in search of a second and should have had a penalty had it not been for a bad refereeing decision. England keeper Jordan Pickford made a hash of what should have been a simple clearance by trying to play out. Instead, the Evertonian found himself on the receiving end of a good tackle by Valencia striker Rodrigo. With Rodrigo on track to score a simple goal, Pickford slowed him by putting his arm around and pulling and pushing the Spanish striker before finally putting the ball out for a corner. The referee, who was making questionable decisions all night for both sides (beginning with Eric Dier’s yellow card for a perfectly legal tackle), decided to award Spain a corner instead.

With Spain’s domination growing with every passing minute, Gareth Southgate threw on Kyle Walker for Ross Barkley and changed his formation into a 3-4-3 with Walker slotting in alongside Gomez and Harry Maguire at centre-back. Further defensive changes were made when Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold replaced Kieran Trippier and Watford’s Nathaniel Chalobah made his international debut for England – replacing an impressive Harry Winks in midfield. However that did not stop Spain and their relentless waves of attack paid off when Sergio Ramos found himself with an free header from local lad Dani Ceballos’ cross – with the Real Madrid captain doing well to guide it past an outstretched Pickford into the net. However, it proved to be too little, too late as the referee immediately called for full-time.

While the World Cup in Russia may well be the most memorable of Southgate’s achievements till date, this game against Spain in Seville will be remembered as the most complete performance by an English side in recent memory. Clinical in attack (they scored three from three shots on target) and ruthless on the counter in the first half followed by a performance that had them digging in deep to defend the lead in the second, England will be mightily pleased with the way they played against a side superior to them in technical ability – especially with Stones and Henderson missing.

With this result, their Nations League group is also wide open. Spain and England both play Croatia next month with the Iberians travelling away while England host the Croats at Wembley. A draw will likely secure the Spanish side a place in the semifinals given their vastly superior goal difference unless England manage to thump Croatia into submission by more than six goals. A loss for Spain coupled with a win for England would mean the Three Lions go into the semis while two wins out of two for Croatia sends the Balkan nation into the next round.

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