‘MIND the gap’ is a phrase so synonymous with the London Underground that it even appears on t-shirts and other souvenirs bought in their thousands every year by tourists.
For manager Gareth Southgate, however, the need to bridge the gap between England and world football’s elite was dominating his thoughts on leaving the capital this weekend.
Defeat to Spain in what was Wembley’s first taste of the new UEFA Nations League means the Three Lions have to look back to the 2002 World Cup and David Beckham’s penalty against Argentina, then managed by Marcelo Bielsa, for the last time one of the world’s best were beaten in competitive action.
Not even taking the lead with a truly delicious goal from Marcus Rashford after just 11 minutes could buck that trend as the hosts were condemned to defeat by Saul and Rodrigo.
“We know there is a distance to go to the very top teams,” said Southgate. “At moments we compete and we look like being able to create chances.
“But there is a level for us to go to and that is a really good challenge for us over the next couple of years.
We know there is a distance to go to the very top teams. At moments we compete and we look like being able to create chances.Gareth Southgate
“What I have to focus on is improving the team as much as I can. Teams have pressed us in certain ways and, as the game wore on, we started to work out how to get through that pressing. But it is a supreme test.”
England have achieved so much under Southgate. Reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup, laying to rest the ghost of penalty shoot-out heartache from the past in the process, restored a sense of pride to the nation.
However, for all those hurdles negotiated in what was a golden summer for the Three Lions there remains a sense that getting the better of the top teams is a step too far.
Belgium and Croatia deservedly beat England in Russia, while this loss to Spain saw a return of those failings when up against the very best.
Poor technique and a loss of composure, particularly at the back, proved costly once again in this first post-World Cup outing as Luis Enrique’s instruction for the attacking trio of Isco, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo to play as far up the field as possible was carried out to a tee.
A big feature of England’s best run at a World Cup for 28 years was how their three-man backline, and Harry Maguire in particular, were able to bring the ball out of defence.
Thanks to the high pressing of Spain at Wembley these forays forward were seriously curtailed with both time and space being at a premium.
As England increasingly went long as a response to the hassling and harrying of Spain’s front three, the outstanding Thiago took charge.
The Bayern Munich man’s passing was so exemplary that it was fitting both goals came from his assists. He also brought such a tempo to proceedings that Spain looked a big upgrade on the ponderous outfit that had performed so poorly at the World Cup.
To be fair to the hosts they did start and end the game on top, and the opening goal came via the sort of incisive passing move that not so long ago looked way beyond an England side.
It started with a brave defensive header from Luke Shaw inside his own penalty area. Jesse Lingard then opened up play with a delightful flick before Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane got involved to spread the ball to the left flank.
Shaw collected and then looked up before playing the kind of killer pass that can give opposition defenders sleepless nights.
Not only did the quality of his delivery take out two Spanish defenders but goalkeeper David De Gea did not know whether to come or stay and Rashford gleefully took advantage with a first-time finish.
Rashford would have had a second ten minutes before the break but for a stunning reaction save from his Manchester United team-mate De Gea.
By then, however, England were trailing. Just 120 seconds after falling behind the visitors drew level through a crisp finish from Saul after Shaw had been guilty of diving in on Dani Carvajaj as the right-back scampered down the wing.
It was a soft way to surrender a lead although worse lay ahead in the 33rd minute when Kane and John Stones both allowed Rodrigo to nip between them and head Thiago’s free-kick past Jordan Pickford unchallenged.
England struggled after Rashford had been denied by De Gea and the second half would be 31 minutes old before a home player touched the ball inside the Spanish penalty area.
Then, though, came a stirring climax that Danny Welbeck thought he had capped with a dramatic 97th-minute equaliser when finishing from an acute angle after De Gea had dropped the ball.
Referee Danny Makkelie had other ideas and cut short the celebrations by penalising Welbeck for a foul to ensure Spain got the win their overall play had deserved.