Spain provide a happy reference point for English Under-21 football’s past and present.
In 1984, England beat them comprehensively over two legs to win the European Championship—their last victory in this competition. Two years ago, England earned a 2-0 victory in the process of topping their group and sending Spain home.
However, these are different times for Spanish football. At both international level and club level with Barcelona, the country has become the standard bearer with its glorious unanimity of style. From the early signs of this side, the future is bright. England remained a thorn on this occasion however, earning a draw through a late Danny Welbeck goal despite wholesale Spanish superiority.
Spain began as they intended to go on for the next 10 years, monopolising the ball and leading England’s players in a merry dance across the field. Thiago Alcántara and Javi Martínez led the waltz, far too dexterous for England’s midfield. The left wing was also a regular outlet, the dual threat of Didac Vila Rosello and Jeffren looking to ensure that Kyle Walker’s workload was a purely defensive one. It was a powerful burst and cross on 13 minutes from Didac that earned the corner from which Spain scored.
Thiago found Javi Martínez who had the freedom of Herning in the box. His header found Ander Herrera at the far post and the midfielder nodded home. At least, that was how it seemed at the time. Replays showed that Herrera used his hand to divert the ball into the net.
Moments later, it was Jeffren’s turn to get free, but he was unable to provide an accurate cross from a dangerous position. Spain continued in their mesmeric way but were guilty of enjoying possession for possession sake. The necessity for a second goal was not apparent.
Still, England only won the ball to give it back to their opponents. Even those players who have proved to be technically proficient—such as Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson—were flustered in possession. Such was the asphyxiation imposed by Spain’s passing game, each seizure of the ball by England seemed to gain in significance and anxiety crept in as a result. Balls were punted in the general direction of the increasingly isolated Sturridge and Danny Welbeck—the only consequence being a resumption of Spanish possession.
With five minutes of the first half remaining, England mustered a spell of relative pressure. Their first telling sequence of passing ended with a marvellous whipped cross from the largely erratic Danny Rose. He was unfortunate not to see it capitalised on by an English attacker. Soon after, Walker set off on a trademark charge down the right, and his cross found Sturridge who could not connect with sufficient power. Still, David de Gea had to a make a fine save. It was a small revival, but coupled with the one-goal deficit, it was a source of half-time encouragement for England.
Indeed, to their credit, England emerged with a determination to use the ball more serenely in the second period. Unlike Spain however, they were unable to create chances of note. England’s play felt contrived rather than instinctive, much like Shooter McGavin wildly sprinting at golf balls in his woodland retreat.
Spain were quick to reassert themselves and produced the move of the match on 71 minutes, fluidly moving the ball across the box with great assurance. Eventually the marauding Martin Montoya ran onto the ball on the right and delivered a powerful shot into the side-netting. It was a disappointing finish to a thrilling move.
The second goal would not come though. Luis Milla sent on Bojan Krkić and Diego Capel in an effort to find it, but it was England who would demolish the fragile lead. Another charge from Walker put the Spanish defence in retreat. He cut inside and played a pass to an offside Welbeck which took out the back four in one swoop. The Manchester United striker was left one-on-one, and he calmly passed the ball past a statuesque de Gea.
Deserved? Far from it, but England took advantage of Spain’s profligacy.
England coach Stuart Pearce said that he wants his players to play with the “arrogance” of the Spanish. On the contrary, Spain’s play seems to be a model of humility; 11 players of collective endeavour with admirable appreciation of each other’s intentions. Meanwhile, England appeared anxious when simply keeping the ball, coming forward without a coherent plan, preferring to punt aimlessly or run as if decapitated at the first sign of pressure.
There is work to do for Spain also. They did not win after all. While one would bet on their supreme skills winning out in the long run, after drawing a game they should have won and a match against the promising Czechs ahead, they have little room for manoeuvre.
One goal was not a sufficient return in light of their dominance. They will hope that in the rest of the tournament, they can convert their irrepressible creativity into hard goals. A draw, on this occasion, made a mockery of the performance of both sides.