Gareth Southgate and Julen Lopetegui, kindred spirits that they are, spoke well of one another in the build up to England’s friendly with Spain at Wembley on Tuesday.
Both graduated from coaching their country’s Under-21 sides to taking on the top job, with Southgate surely only interim in name following a solid return from his four-match England audition.
Discussing his opposite number in the match programme, Southgate said: “Julen Lopetegui, having been in charge of their U21s is in an ideal position to bring through those players [Spain’s next generation].”
Luckily for him, Southgate seems to be a good deal better at preparing football teams than dropping subtle hints. England were good value for a 2-0 lead in the capital – the home support prematurely convinced of victory as they launched into a mobile-phone-illuminated Mexican wave before the hour.
For his part, Lopetegui let his men know what was coming.
“Southgate is improving the English team,” he said at a pre-match news conference. “They are showing different skills in the offensive phase and I think they are trying to organise their offensive phase, that is my impression.”
England’s attacking conductor was indisputably Adam Lallana, who stamped his authority on the contest instantly – blunting a calibre of opponent the Three Lions customarily settle into a sapping bout of shadow chasing against.
The in-form Liverpool attacker’s right-wing cross in the ninth minute was as brilliant as the response of Jamie Vardy and Pepe Reina was farcical. The Leicester City striker fluffed an attempt to control and collect an almost certain goal, while the Napoli goalkeeper provided instant respite by bundling him to the floor.
Lallana missed from 12 yards on this ground as Liverpool lost the League Cup final in a shootout against Manchester City in February and a lack of conviction in the area undermined some bright showings at Euro 2016.
A few months down the line and the ex-Southampton playmaker is a different animal. There was little doubt he would confidently stroke his spot-kick past Reina for a third international goal of the season.
England’s confidence flowered briefly, at odds with a barren 2016, and Lallana found willing allies in Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard. The trio smoothly rotated positions behind Vardy, placing further questions around whether the absent Wayne Rooney is now predominantly a help or a hindrance.
A fractionally late challenge from Thiago Alcantara ended Lallana’s night early but Vardy put a wretched first-half behind him to double England’s lead after 48 minutes.
Spain failed to impose themselves from losing positions in their own forgettable 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 campaigns, so Lopetegui will be particularly buoyed by what followed.
Methodical and magisterial possession pushed England back and, with Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke on at the break, Spain had drive right until the death. He must be the fulcrum of the Lopetegui era.
Iago Aspas’ sublime finish reduced the arrears before Isco pounced in the sixth minute of stoppage time. Southgate found himself in a discussion with the fourth official he could not have envisaged while earlier breaking ranks on Vardy’s mannequin challenge goal celebration.
Talent and flaws were there for all to see from both sides, so perhaps having two quiet nurturers of talent who will work diligently behind the scenes at association HQ will be no bad thing for England and Spain as they tackle transition on the road to World Cup 2018.
The cream of coaching talent today is consumed with the day-to-day grind in Europe’s top leagues and Southgate and Lopetegui must benefit residually and gratefully. Then, in 2018, who knows?
Aime Jacquet and Joachim Low were company men before lifting the ultimate prize. The man sacked by Middlesbrough and the coach who considered Championship side Wolves face a hard slog to join them in that club but they deserve the opportunity.
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