Southgate right to play the long game with England

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Gareth Southgate was given an out, a viable excuse, and he refused to take it.

In the immediate aftermath of Saturday's 2-1 Nations League defeat to Spain at Wembley, England captain Harry Kane claimed referee Danny Makkelie "bottled it" by disallowing Danny Welbeck's stoppage-time equaliser for a foul on David de Gea.

Southgate was similarly irked by a decision he felt was a clear error from the match officials but swiftly switched focus back towards the bigger picture.

"Over the 90 minutes we have to accept Spain were better than us for long periods," he said.

"Their use of the ball was top class. I think we've got some players who showed they can perform at that level and some are still a work in progress."

It continued a theme for Southgate during this international week. England's dizzying run to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia leaves him managing expectations no one really expected.

There is a balancing act. Southgate's status as an immaculately waist-coated national treasure – his name was sung throughout by a buoyant and hearteningly young Wembley crowd against Spain – buys him time through goodwill as he oversees the next stage of his team's development. On the other hand, England were 22 minutes away from a World Cup final and dips below that lofty standard will jar.

The road ahead may be uneven but it is to Southgate's credit that his eyes are fixed upon a clear path.

"We've got to keep faith in how we're trying to play and not go back to what we were doing historically," he said. "There's no way we'll be a top team if we do that."

Amid the plaudits, there was scepticism over the notion of a brave new England a couple of months ago.

"The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield, but when we pressed them it turned out that they hadn't," said Croatia right-back Sime Vrsaljko after their semi-final triumph in Moscow, alluding to the very history Southgate is determined to escape.

Suggesting Southgate had not evolved England's style was unfair, although Vrsaljko's words stung because they contained a ring of truth. As Luka Modric silkily orchestrated their downfall, the Three Lions' play became gradually longer, more hopeful and desperate.

Where Modric trod, Isco, Thiago and Saul Niguez followed. Jordan Henderson was again bedraggled at the base of England's midfield as Spain's fans broke into "Oles" before half-time.

Nevertheless, De Gea ended the match as a worked-over goalkeeper grateful to be on the right side of a contentious call.

Spain enjoyed more possession and completed 113 more passes at an accuracy of 91.3 per cent, compared to England's 84.7. Southgate's men could not hang with La Roja for the majority of the contest but did in the moments they were quicker to the pass and sharper in the transitions – most notably for Marcus Rashford's beautifully constructed opener.

De Gea denied his Manchester United team-mate twice more. England made Spain sweat during the closing stages, not because they pumped balls into the box and down the channels but through Henderson's replacement Eric Dier giving more stability to their build-up alongside playmaking centre-back John Stones.

Another trait of England's history is what happens next after a fine tournament. Following the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, England left Euro 92 winless and failed to reach USA 94. Their Euro 96 heroes were bolstered by Michael Owen, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard and bowed out at the group stage four years later.

Southgate does not have such talent at his disposal. Talk of a call-up for Phil Foden before the wonderfully gifted Manchester City teenager has started a Premier League match shows an anxious clamour for the controlling midfield creator England badly need.

If and when players of that profile flourish, they will find a home in an England setup geared towards using them effectively. Should Southgate fail to improve upon that heady month in Russia, it will not be because he repeated the wasteful short-sightedness of the past.

There is no way England will be a top team if they do that again.