KEIR RADNEDGE at WEMBLEY —- England found returning to square one in a new competition a testing experience as they took a brief early lead before being deservedly overhauled by a more nimble and effective Spain in the UEFA Nations League.
Marcus Rashford shot the hosts ahead in the 11th minute with Saul Niguez immediately rapping an equaliser. Just after the halfhour Rodrigo shot the visitors into a 2-1 lead which they held despite a stoppage-time flurry from England. Too little, too late and a third successive defeat.
The scenario for England had been very different from the one before they flew to the manager Gareth Southgate took a team mixing Premier League superstars and unknowns to fourth place at the World Cup in Russia in June.
Now, however, the World Cup’s six-goal top scorer Harry Kane and his colleagues struggled to prove themselves both worthy of high status and demonstrate that they can be a danger in the Nations League and then Euro 2020.
Spain had been a major disappointment at the World Cup and new boss Luis Enrique kept only 13 of the 23 men who went to Russia with Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Gerard Pique all having retired from the national team.
For his first match in charge the ex-Barcelona coach said he wanted to develop a more progressive style of play than the possession football which had brought La Roja so much success in the past decade.
Ironically it was in trying to follow orders that Spain were caught out after 11 minutes, trapped upfield as Jordan Henderson and Luke Shaw carved open an exposed defence for Marcus Rashford to open the scoring.
Spain, undaunted, immediately hit back. Dani Carvajal cut in from the right and Sergi Busquets turned the ball back for Saul Niguez, on the turn, to shoot low past Jordan Pickford’s left hand.
Spain were playing the neater, sharper football with Thiago Alcantara outstanding in midfield. He provided the left-wing free kick from which the unmarked Rodrigo was allowed to pop Spain into a 2-1 lead in the 32nd minute.
England had now conceded six goals in their last three games in all competitions, as many as they had in their previous 13 games combined.
Other chances fell at both ends. England captain Harry Kane was robbed, on the point of shooting, by Niguez and Rashford had a close-range header brilliantly saved by his Manchester United club-mate David De Gea.
England fans loudly booed Spain captain Sergio Ramos every time he touched the ball – remembering his Champions League tangle with Mo Salah – but he was enjoying a comparatively comfortable evening. Instead it was bookings for captain Jordan Henderson and Luke Shaw, for upending Marcos Alonso and Dani Carvajal respectively , which illustrated England’s unease.
This was not England’s night. Three minutes into the second half Shaw was felled in a clash of heads with Carvajal and had to be carried off on a stretcher. Danny Rose substituted and then Eric Dier replaced Henderson as Spain continued to dictate the game with Thiago firing just over the bar then Niguez forcing a sharp save from Pickford.
England had to wait until the last 10 minutes for their first sights of goal in the second half. Kane sent Rashford through but his shot ricocheted off the outstretched right leg of De Gea and Kane lashed the loose ball wide. Minutes later Harry Maguire headed wide from a corner.
Southgate threw on Danny Welbeck in stoppage time and the Arsenal man through he had equalised when he turned to shoot in after De Gea had dropped the ball on his head under pressure but Dutch referee Danny Makkelie awarded a free kick to Spain instead.
England: Pickford – Gomez, Stones, Maguire – Henderson (Dier 63)- Tripper, Alli, Lingard, Shaw (Rose 53) – Kane, Rashford (Welbeck 90).
Spain: De Gea – Dani Carvajal, Nacho, Sergio Ramos, Marcos Alonso (Inigo Martinez 86) – Thiago Alcantara (Sergi Roberto 79), Busquets, Saul Niguez – Rodrigo, Aspas (Marco Asensio 67), Isco.
Referee: D Makkelie (Hol). Attendance: 81,392.