There was a moment in the first half when Thiago Alcantara beat Harry Winks. The Spain midfielder did not just beat him but, in this social media world, apparently embarrassed him with his audacious ‘see-you-later’ skill. Finished him, some gloated. Except England were 1-0 up at this stage; quickly two and then three. So who was being embarrassed?
And Winks emphatically played his part, not least by playing with such discipline against one of the most admired midfield trios in world football - Thiago, Saul and Sergio Busquets. England matched them up.
It was the pressure that Winks applied, quickly closing down Sergio Ramos, intercepting his clearance, that forced Spain back with Busquets flustered into surrendering possession leading to England’s third goal.
AS IT HAPPENED: England 3 Spain 2
READ MORE: 5 things we learned as England beat Spain
So here it is. England were three goals ahead, with just five shots and only 28 per cent possession by the time the shell-shocked Spain fans had booed their team off at half-time. Those fans were drenched on their way to the stadium, in an almighty downpour, and although it was claimed it was Winks who was rinsed by that piece of Thiago skill, it was Thiago’s team who were left drenched.
England were devastating in that half, and this is the way ahead with a bold 4-3-3 built on a hard-working, industrious midfield three and remarkable pace either side of the centre-forward guile of Harry Kane.
What a way to hit your first away international goal!@England open the scoring in Spain with this emphatic finish from Raheem Sterling!— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) October 15, 2018
Watch Spain v @England live on Sky Sports Football or watch in-game clips and highlights here: https://t.co/u2MyryfVxcpic.twitter.com/Dw0P5L6OuT
There was another moment, a moment above all other, involving England’s midfield that set the tone; that provided the catalyst. It came from Winks’ midfield partner and Tottenham Hotspur team-mate Eric Dier who tackled Ramos inside the Spain penalty area. Dier was wrongly booked but it almost felt that that no-nonsense challenge was a sign from England that this was going to be a contest; a battle.
The debate will continue as to where England will get their Luka Modric or, given this opposition, their Busquets or Thiago from, and that became relevant again in a second half where England could not get the ball and were left holding on.
.@England are in dreamland!— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) October 15, 2018
They're flying against Spain and here's a look at the goal from Marcus Rashford that made it 0-2!
Watch Spain v @England live on Sky Sports Football or watch in-game clips and highlights here: https://t.co/u2MyryfVxcpic.twitter.com/Fe7O7fmm5B
But all three England goals came from open play and it already felt a world away from the 3-5-2 that proved effective at the World Cup but was ultimately limited, and dependent on set-pieces, as manager Gareth Southgate acknowledged. And he was brave enough to rip it and start again. At times this was football on a different level. England were sharp, self-assured and incisive.
Leading nations should want to dominate possession but that was not really going to happen against Spain, and certainly not in Spain, so Southgate constructed a midfield that would work incredibly hard and use the ball sharply and aggressively when they had it. The problem was sustaining that.
Also in that midfield was Ross Barkley and his ability to run with the ball caught the eye more than Winks but they both kept their position, stayed in check.
Potentially, Winks possesses exactly the kind of quality this England side needs but this was a different kind of performance and one that answered some of the criticism he has faced about whether he has the focus to dedicate himself to football.
This was also only Winks’ second cap, a year after he earned his first in the ‘dead rubber’ of a World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, but this is his chance to press for a regular place. By pressing.
Southgate is evolving his midfield more than any other department of his team, having settled on what he wants in defence and attack. It is why Winks is in the squad as well as Mason Mount, James Maddison and Nathaniel Chalobah – a late substitute. There is an opportunity there to be seized.
In the second half it became fierce. Spain were relentless as they forced England back and it felt they dominated possession even more. There was precious little chance for Winks to get on the ball but when he did have it he kept it.
Inevitably Southgate had to change the system as his team were being over-run and were holding on. He reverted to his 3-5-2 with Barkley going off. It was not an admission of failure – England were 3-1 up – but an admission that something had to change and that he was prepared to do it and his team could be adaptable.