On Saturday, League A Group 4 of the UEFA Nations League began with England taking on Spain. The World Cup semifinalists were out to show the world that their deep run wasn’t a fluke, while La Roja were determined to show their failure in Russia doesn’t indicate the true strength of the team. The match ended 2-1 in favor of Spain, but there is so much the scoreline doesn’t tell about both respective nations.
Starting with Spain, their call up list was interesting to say the least. The most interesting omission was Barcelona left back Jordi Alba. He has been a starter for Spain for a number of years now and found himself off his former Barcelona coach, Luis Enrique’s, first call up list. For the game, Marcos Alonso started and he is a player that is highly rated in the Premier League, who would have been disappointed not to have made the World Cup squad. Perhaps Enrique feels Alonso is a better defensive option than Alba, as he often leaves himself exposed due to his surging runs forward and relies on his pace to make up for being caught out of position. However, in my opinion he is a better option than Jose Gaya, the second choice left back named in the team, so it is a shock he wasn’t called up at all.
Staying with the defense, another thing to note was Nacho Fernandez starting along Sergio Ramos at the center back spot. Ramos is a given starter as the nation’s captain whereas Nacho is a player that is seen as a versatile squad player for both Real Madrid and the Spanish national team. Maybe Enrique wanted to have a center back pairing with the most chemistry since the match was an official game and not a friendly, so considering the two play for Real Madrid it makes sense to pair the two together. In the future, one would assume another player will cement themselves as the successor to the now retired Gerard Pique. I believe the spot should go to Cesar Azpilicueta.
Going behind the defense, David De Gea started in goal amidst calls from fans for the Manchester United player to be dropped in favor of Kepa Arrizabalaga. However, the choice to stick with the recent Spain number one was justified as he made a number of great saves that allowed Spain to win the match. Without him, they could have lost as De Gea made key saves on his club teammate Marcus Rashford on three occasions – a 1 on 1 opportunity, a close range header, and an offsides attack that nonetheless forced a great save when Rashford was through on goal. The match has shown Spanish fans that De Gea is rightfully so their starting goalkeeper as the display demonstrated his world-class ability.
Moving up the pitch, something that wasn’t expected, at least from myself, was Rodrigo and Iago Aspas starting together. Both usually play as center forwards for their clubs teams so they are frequently seen as in competition with each other to start games and get into the squad. Yet, Enrique decided to try and play both of them together against the Three Lions. In another surprise, Rodrigo was the one to play wide, not Aspas. Aspas has played out wide more frequently in the past so naturally if one were to play with more width it would be him, but instead he played in the center while Rodrigo went to the right. This decision paid dividends as Rodrigo got a goal and an assist, demonstrating his ability to contribute to the attack from wide. This decision probably came about due to Diego Costa’s inability to play for the match, giving the coach an opportunity to try out both forwards.
Looking at England, the left back position is also an area of the pitch to keep an eye on. At the World Cup, Ashley Young was the team’s starting left back, but was left out for this squad as he hasn’t played much for Manchester United so far this season. In addition, coach Gareth Southgate is looking to make the squad younger and at 33 years old, his time in the national team set up is most likely up. Starting the match was Luke Shaw who has had a brilliant start to the season at United. He gave a magnificent ball to provide the assist for England’s only goal and was a real threat going forward before he had to be stretchered off the field early in the second half. Should he continue his great form and avoid any major injuries, Shaw has a realistic chance of being England’s starting left back for the next decade as he his only 23 years old.
Again something to note in the defense like Spain is the center back position. England utilize a back three and in Russia, Kyle Walker was used on the right of the three. He is normally a right back, but was moved there to accommodate Kieran Tripper into the team as he played right back, meaning that Walker played behind him, using his pace to cover up any mistake the other center backs may have made. In addition, after playing for Manchester City where possession football is greatly emphasized, Southgate saw this as the answer to having another center back who is skilled on the ball while still being mature enough to handle the pressure of a World Cup. For the game against Spain, Walker was forced to sit on the bench and watch on as Joe Gomez, Liverpool’s 21-year-old center back, started in his place. Gomez has started the season very well and will look to become a starter for his country, creating a dilemma for Southgate. Gomez is a natural center back so he won’t make the mistakes Walker would considering the position doesn’t come as natural to him. However, many would rate him as a better right back than Tripper; yet Tripper’s set pieces were key to England’s success last summer, a quality Walker doesn’t have. A great issue for any coach to have, this will be very interesting to see how Southgate decides to handle this little conundrum moving forward.
Looking at England’s performance, they will be happy as they showed their ability to go up against a team with some of the world’s best players. Many point out the quality of the opposition was the main reason England got so far at the World Cup and although that does have a part to play, in this game they proved it wasn’t just being on the “easiest” side of the tournament’s bracket. Had they taken some of the chances they created throughout the game, England could have easily won the match. Plus, the referee made a controversial call by calling off a late equalizer in stoppage time so maybe they should have earned a draw.
The one concern will be the Three Lions’s frustration in the second half as they struggled to keep the ball, often relinquishing possession with cheap play, gifting the ball back to Spain. Jordan Henderson coming off for Eric Dier helped, but the team will look back and think they could have performed better.
All in all, both teams have some thinking to do when it comes to who should start and where, especially in the back, but both will have many positives to take from this game. Both teams are nations capable of big things and it will be more than intriguing to see how both get on with the UEFA Nations League and the upcoming Euros in 2020.