All the doubts and debate about England – about how well they actually played in the World Cup, how good a coach Gareth Southgate is, whether this is a team heading in the right direction – were answered here in Seville more emphatically than anyone could ever have expected.
This was the best England performance for a generation, racing into a 3-0 lead and hanging on in the second half, thumping a top team away from home with a power, conviction and ruthlessness reminiscent of Munich 2001.
The game and the goals will be remembered forever but what especially matters, beyond the three points, is the vindication this represents for Southgate and his management. For his trust in young players. For his attacking style of play. For his willingness to press even this Spanish side. For his return to 4-3-3. For his use of Harry Kane, which felt slightly misguided in the past but here utterly wrong-footed even this Spanish defence. And, in doing so, cut out much of the noise around Kane too.
Kane has been told all season that he is out of nick, that he has not been taking enough shots and not scoring enough goals. Here, he did not even meet his critics on their terms. Instead, he showed that there is far more to his game than goals and shots. Without ever looking like scoring himself, Kane produced one of his best ever performances for England.
That only intensified the sense of vindication for Southgate, and for Kane himself. Southgate has long believed that his captain does not always have to lead the line; that he can be dangerous dropping deep, whether to shoot from distance or to play in opponents. That is how it was meant to work at the World Cup, with Sterling running off Kane, although we know now that it never clicked as we hoped.
This time the plan worked better than anyone could have imagined. This time Kane had not one partner but two, the old 3-5-2 replaced by a 4-3-3 that put Marcus Rashford and Sterling alongside him. Twice as much running, twice as much danger, twice as much pace. At the World Cup England struggled to give opponents too much to worry about in open play. Here they shredded Spain with one of their greatest ever first half performances.
At the heart of it all was Kane, playing with a captain’s selflessness, not always a trait associated with such a ruthless goalscorer. But he was always there, every time England did anything good. It was Kane who picked up Jordan Pickford’s pass and played in Rashford, who quickly found Sterling, as England raced down the pitch to score that thrilling back-to-front counter-attacking opener.
The second goal turned on an even greater moment of team play from the captain. When Pickford hit the ball long to Kane it felt like a quick release of pressure to get the team up the pitch. But Kane managed to win the ball, hold off Sergio Ramos and Nacho, wait for the perfect moment and then roll the ball through to Rashford. That is why Kane takes up those deeper positions for England. That is why Southgate has returned to the 4-3-3, to get Kane more help.
And this system does not even just rely on Kane coming short either. His work for the third goal was invaluable, running in behind. When Ross Barkley had the ball 20 yards from goal, Kane knew to make the run behind the Spanish defence, trusting Barkley to pick him out with that perfect chipped pass over the top. It worked perfectly, Kane rolling the ball across to Sterling to tap the ball in.
Three goals for England, three crucial contributions from Kane, and three expert finishes from his striker partners. This night belonged to them too, especially as their finishing has come under cruel scrutiny in recent weeks. Sterling was hammered for his missed chances in Russia and even conceded, in the aftermath of Friday night’s 0-0 draw in Rijeka, that he needed to show the same improvement in front of goal for England that he has for Manchester City.
How better to do that than this? Racing onto Rashford’s pass, just 15 minutes into the game, Sterling produced the quality of finish he only finds when he is on top of his game. Not too much backlift, taking it early, hitting hard across the goalkeeper before he has a chance to react. Even David De Gea, the best in the world in these situations, had no chance to get anywhere near it. After all the haranguing and scapegoating Sterling has faced, this goal felt like a repudiation, a vindication and a moment of catharsis, all in one swing of Sterling’s orange right boot.
Rashford came into this game in even worse finishing form than Sterling. He struggled in front of goal in Russia and against Croatia on Friday he missed England’s two best chances. He looked even shorter on confidence and luck than Sterling did. But team-mates feed off each other’s energy. After Sterling buried his opening chance, the whole England team seemed to lift. When Rashford raced through in Rijeka, you never felt confident. When he ran through here in Seville, you knew he was going to follow Sterling’s example and score.
That is the transformative power of confidence. And the benefit of Southgate picking an England team designed to cause Spain problems, rather than just trying to respond to their own.
It would have been easy enough for Southgate to come here to try to contain Spain. To sit deep and invite them on. To stick with the summer 3-5-2, even knowing it would likely get pinned back into a 5-3-2 for much of the game. Because losing here would have been no disgrace and nobody likes to be embarrassed.
But that is not how Southgate sees the game. He wanted to take a risk, knowing that taking Spain on, pressing them, trying to get in behind, could be far more rewarding. Hence the 4-3-3, Rashford and Sterling, no comfort blanket in defence. And it delivered England’s best performance in a competitive game since Euro 2004, if not before. Rarely has an England manager been as vindicated as this.