For Gareth Southgate, nothing in 2018 will quite top a Russia World Cup when, for a couple of weeks, it felt like anything was possible, but watching the youngest England team selected since 1959 break one of world football’s greatest unbeaten home runs will get very close.
This was a night when Southgate’s young players tasted that rare vintage which so often eludes England teams – inflicting defeat upon a nation that realistically expects to win every match they play.
Spain had not lost a home competitive defeat since 2003 until England roared through a first half which ended with them having less than 30 per cent of the possession and all three of the goals scored.
READ MORE: 5 things we learned as England beat Spain
There were two for Raheem Sterling, who had not scored in more than three years for his country, and another for Marcus Rashford and they had come in some of the most exhilarating counter-attacking this, or any other generation, has served up. There is no easy way to beat Spain, and Southgate’s players found that out in the second half when they were subject to a brutal examination from the home side, who scored their second with the last touch of the game.
That was Sergio Ramos’ header in the 97th minute, the end of a relentless half of pressure in which substitute Paco Alcacer had scored the first and Spain never gave up.
Viva the Uefa Nations League, which gave us one of the greatest international games outside tournament football in memory.
The first England win over Spain on Spanish soil since 1987; a whole 5,609 days since the last time Spain had lost at home where they had never before lost a competitive game. This was more than a friendly and, as for the Nations League, England can still win their group.
If he could have stopped it there, the first half would have satisfied Southgate as a piece of work on its own. As a template for beating one of the world’s great football nations, it was as near to perfect as you are likely to find, save a few mistakes among his defenders and one or two chances that went begging.
But that would be to pick holes in a glorious half when England swept up the pitch so quick that it all happened before you could even begin to comprehend it, and that was how it looked for Spain’s defence.
Ramos and his Real Madrid team-mate Nacho did not just look slow, they also looked bullied and unable to decide whether to advance or drop in moments of pressure.
Harry Kane was magnificent in all three goals, but this was Sterling’s night. His first goal for his country in 1,102 days and it was not just the event itself, but the power with which he swept it home after 16 minutes. He got a second before the end of the half and the only surprise was that given the chance between his two goals, to accelerate ahead of Ramos, the Manchester City man doubled back.
England had been under the hammer at the start because this is, after all, a magnificent Spain team with the playmaker Thiago Alcantara calling the shots as he did last month at Wembley. Spain forced mistakes from the likes of Joe Gomez and Harry Maguire in that first half, but they never managed to deliver the killer ball to Marcos Asensio or Rodrigo Moreno.
There was no question that England were looking for the quick out-ball when the opportunity presented itself, and the first time that it did the goal that resulted looked like something they had been working on all week. From Jordan Pickford’s quickly cleared ball to Kane it went to Rashford on the left, who struck a right-footed pass that spilt Spain’s defence and gave Sterling the run on goal.
Best of all was the finish, an explosive hit with the right foot across David de Gea and into the goalkeeper’s top-right corner. It was an outrageous hit that the game’s best goalkeeper barely bothered to wave a glove at, a shot struck so viciously that it came bouncing back out before De Gea had time to contemplate it.
Even then Spain still looked like they could break out of England’s press at any moment. It could have been overwhelming at times, but England had broken Spain once and they would do so again.
The second was a long punt from Pickford when Spain had stepped up and Kane running to receive it looking back over his shoulder with Ramos and Nacho converging on him. The England captain’s strength and touch meant that he got the ball where he wanted it. His pass took out three Spain defenders, Rashford’s first touch set the ball and his finish past De Gea was perfect.
It was not just the goals themselves, but the manner in which they came and the third was the same. There was a dreadful error from Sergio Busquets in the build-up which gave the initiative to England. Ross Barkley spread the ball to the right and it was Kane again, cutting the ball back for Sterling to arrive in the area and finish.
It had been a game that seemed to matter from the very start, when Eric Dier launched himself into a sliding tackle on Ramos in the Spain captain’s own area after the 11th minute. It was something of a trademark of the young Dier and, of course, Ramos did not like it. Dier was booked by the Polish referee Szymon Marciniak for no other reason, it seemed, that he was not used to seeing that sort of thing.
Luis Enrique sent his players out early for the second half and they chased the game relentlessly in the second half. It was an unstinting pursuit and Alcacer scored a goal with his first touch as a substitute flicking his header from a corner.
Pickford was very fortunate not to concede a penalty for a daft challenge on Rodrigo when the England goalkeeper tied himself up in knots trying to make space for a pass from Dier’s backpass.
Later Southgate switched to a 3-5-2 system with Kyle Walker on for Barkley. Nathaniel Chalobah came on for his debut. Ramos scored a second and was running back to the centre spot when the final whistle went.
A rich tapestry
Splendid artwork celebrating Eric Dier kicking bits out of Sergio Ramos.
It was so good we had to make a tapestry pic.twitter.com/XOA5OG6OkJ
— Panini Cheapskates (@CheapPanini) October 15, 2018
Rookies stepped up
Joe Gomez and Ben Chilwell, with six England caps between them, were phenomenal tonight.
— Sam Dean (@SamJDean) October 15, 2018
Good times here again?
Spain 2 England 3, with 37 first-half minutes that evoked Germany 1 England 5 in 2001. Then a long Spanish fightback. Impetus restored after a flat end to England's World Cup.
— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) October 15, 2018
Gareth Southgate quotes: "We are encouraging people to take risks, for an incredibly young team I thought it was a mature performance. They should be very proud.
Other moments where the quality of play, finding the links in midfield, the composure on the ball from goalkeeper all the way through the side... It was not a case of just sitting on the ball and defending.
Of course we were under pressure at the end.
People have chosen to analyse the summer as they see fit, what the players achieved was incredible. Next challenge was to advance, we are looking at a new system and have young players who are giving us a lot of options.
Mentality of staff and players has been outstanding.
The new formation has allowed us to press the ball a lot better. We still need courage to play. Spain swarm around you quickly but we said if you can get out of that initial press quickly we are a threat on the counter. Decision making was excellent.
Difficult to think of (better performances) in terms of quality and coming to a top team who were on a good run. We have to keep building.
I have never seen a board go up with seven minutes, that was hard to believe. We got undone from two set plays which we shouldn't but some young players had to withstand huge pressure. It was great experience."