Was England’s flirtation with tournament glory just a summer fling or the start of something more lasting?
Gareth Southgate has set the right tone for the start of a new cycle leading up to Euro 2020 by declaring he wants his young squad to become the best in the world, but to do so they must ultimately improve from the displays that took them to the World Cup semi-finals.
This is not to belittle their achievements in Russia. A young, engaging group overcame so many historic pitfalls to leave the crippling fear of failure that inhibited their predecessors firmly in the past.
They reconvened at St George’s Park this week determined to continue the transparency which helped them re-engage with a nation, from the trivial moment shared on social media when Kyle Walker turned up only to realise he had forgotten his boots, to Luke Shaw’s candid account of a serious injury which almost cost him his right leg.
A sense of opportunity now prevails. Southgate summed it up perfectly when declaring England may have reached the last four of the biggest competition in the world but cannot consider themselves one of the top four sides. Fifa has them positioned sixth - and even that seems generous when weighted against the longer standing pedigree of some teams below them.
Spain, in ninth place, are one such example, licking their wounds from a campaign which ended with a last-16, penalty shootout defeat to the hosts.
England, of course, went further but some argued they benefited from an easy draw, avoiding an elite team of genuine class - aside from a watered-down fixture against Belgium - until facing Croatia in the last four.
Kieran Trippier this week countered that England could only beat who was put in front of them, and it is worth pointing out even that has proved troublesome prior to the summer, but there is an admission from within the camp that they must find greater fluidity.
Trio with a point to prove
After a few years struggling with form and fitness, Shaw has a real opportunity to make the England left-back berth his own. Ashley Young has been left out of the squad, while coach Gareth Southgate has some reservations over Danny Rose.
Henderson’s form won over the critics in the summer but a lack of game time at Liverpool this season means he could be short of his best The midfielder has played just 148 minutes and with Spain’s ability to keep possession, his stamina will come under scrutiny.
The Manchester United forward is most likely to benefit from Raheem Sterling’s absence to start next to Harry Kane. A record of three goals in 25 caps needs to be improved. He also needs a positive outing after getting sent off against Burnley last weekend.
“We managed to play with some style in Russia, but we also know that we’ve got quite a bit to do to get to the level that we want to,” Southgate wrote in his programme notes for tomorrow’s game. England need to take the best of their performances and turn them into the norm rather than a refreshing exception to the old rule.
Southgate’s side mastered the vagaries of the Video Assistant Referee better than any other nation. They were set-piece kings, with nine of their 12 goals coming from dead-ball situations.
The challenge now is to turn the opening 25-minute spell against Tunisia, the first half against Panama and patches of the matches against Colombia, Sweden and Croatia into more lasting periods of control and, ultimately, goals from open play.
Spain are, of course, aesthetically advanced. The pass masters. They took a last-16 exit in 2006 and turned it into three successive tournament wins, doing so with a possession-based style envied the world over.
Their latest effort imploded before it began as Julen Lopetegui was sacked two days before their opening match in Russia after the Spanish football authorities claimed they were not consulted over the 52-year-old’s move to Real Madrid once the finals were over.
“Spain are a better team than their ranking suggests and a better team than what their outcome in the World Cup suggests,” said Southgate.
“There’s no question that losing their coach on the eve of the tournament had an impact on how they did in Russia. They now have Luis Enrique in charge, who has a top pedigree, and even though they’ve lost some significant players through retirement, they can replace them with players from the highest possible level.
“The depth of talent that Spain have, which we’ve seen coming through their youth system for a number of years, shows that they continue to produce some excellent players.”
Andres Iniesta may have retired, while Diego Costa is absent ahead of the birth of his second child, but Enrique’s first squad still boasts a great variety of talent, including Sergio Ramos, Thiago, Marco Asensio and David De Gea.
It remains to be seen how effective the Nations League proves in injecting urgency to often anodyne matches outside of the conventional qualification-tournament routine, but there is more on the line than in Spain’s previous visit in November 2016.
Back then, Southgate was auditioning for a job he has since grown into in impressive fashion, overseeing a team and organising high-profile friendlies to help them reach the level required for tournament success.
“We played Spain here at Wembley less than two years ago and that ended 2-2 in what was an important game for us and one in which we learned a lot,” recalled Southgate.
“We want to test ourselves against these teams. You can play lesser teams and get wins and good performances, but not learn as much. In every game we’ve played against the top nations, we’ve learnt so much both with and without the ball that you ultimately improve from it. Of course, we want to win matches, but we’ve got to learn from them as well.”
Beating Spain would continue the forward momentum generated in Russia and help enhance the feeling this is an England group we have not yet seen the best of.