A little more than 24 hours after England's humiliating exit from the European Championship, there was a silver lining of sorts. Looking down from the stands in the Netanya Municipal Stadium on Sunday evening, there was a realisation that we should be grateful England never came face-to-face with the Spanish side that completely outclassed Germany to join Holland and Italy in the semi-finals.
Spain, who triumphed courtesy of Alvaro Morata's late goal, were a joy to watch, their sharp, incisive passing, dexterous control and fluid movement a world away from the slow, prosaic football England served up in their dismal 3-1 defeat by Norway on Saturday, a result which eliminated Stuart Pearce's side from these finals before Tuesday's final group game against Israel.
England had four full internationals (Jack Butland, Steven Caulker, Jordan Henderson and Wilfried Zaha) in the side that started against Norway. Spain had only two (Thiago Alcantara and Isco) in their starting XI against Germany. Brace yourself for the shock – it is harder to win a full Spanish cap. In Spain, supremely talented footballers at Under-21 level who play in La Liga but have yet to feature for the national team are easy to find. If only the same were true in England.
All 11 players in Spain's starting lineup against Germany were playing top-flight football last season, nine of them in La Liga. Those 11 made a total of 371 appearances for their clubs, 272 in league matches. Marc Bartra, the impressive Barcelona central defender, was the only player who made less than 10 league appearances (he played eight, 16 in total, including cup competitions). As things stand, nine of the Spanish 11 will be playing Champions League football next season.
As for the England side that started against Norway, only four of them played top-flight football last season and one of those, Craig Dawson, made just one appearance. In total, those four players – none of whom are with a top-four club – made 76 Premier League appearances between them. The other seven players were in the Championship. Those figures would, of course, be better if England had brought their best team. Although as a former Premier League manager pointed out on Sunday evening, Spain's Under-21 side would give England's senior team a run for their money.
What England would do for a player like Asier Illarramendi. If you have never heard of him, remember the name. A defensive midfielder who uses the ball intelligently and with wonderful precision, Illarramendi is also capable of breaking forward and, as he demonstrated with a superb piece of skill in the closing stages, wriggling round three players with a couple of drag-backs.
The 23-year-old, who helped Real Sociedad finish fourth in La Liga last season, was the outstanding player against Germany. He completed 89 out of 94 passes, including 48 out of 49 in the first half. And he was not going sideways. Against Russia, in the opening game, Illarramendi completed 106 out of 114 passes. He has made more than any other player in both matches. In other words, he runs the show.
In truth, there was class everywhere you looked in the Spain team. Everyone appeared comfortable on the ball, which was fizzed around at pace, leaving Germany chasing shadows as the Spanish constantly interchanged positions. The statistics tell their own story: Spain made 709 passes, Germany made 314. They passed Germany to death. "We played a spectacular game," Julen Lopetegui, the Spanish coach, said.
There are subtle differences in how his players manipulate the ball. It was fascinating to watch how many of the Spanish Under-21 side rolled their studs over the top of the ball to transfer it from one foot to another before releasing a quick pass. How often do you see an English player do that? We call it showboating. In Spain it's a basic skill. To give another example, if the Spanish players take two touches, the first takes the ball in the direction they want to go, rather than merely controlling it – and that technique and awareness was evident all over the pitch.
Bartra may as well have had a cigar in one hand, a cocktail in the other and a beach towel stuffed under his arm as he played his way out of trouble on the edge of his own penalty area. With Illarramendi conducting the orchestra and Thiago showing some lovely touches, Spain had all the tools to liberate Isco, who is expected to follow Manuel Pellegrini from Málaga to Manchester City, and Cristian Tello, the Barcelona winger who Liverpool have previously showed an interest in taking on loan. With their quick feet, Isco and Tello wreaked havoc on the flanks.
Lopetegui's side had to wait until the 86th minute for a breakthrough, but panic and desperation have no place in Spanish football. Spain kept probing and probing and eventually got their reward when Morata, for the second game running, came off the bench to score a fine individual goal. Without wishing to be disrespectful to Connor Wickham, it did not look like the sort of goal that the Sunderland forward, who was thrown on at half-time against Norway when England were 2-0 down, could produce.
For Pearce and Phil Neville, who were both watching, the whole game must have felt like an education and, as if we needed it, yet another reminder of how far England are behind. It was also a glimpse into the future and, on this evidence, Spain are not planning on giving up their crown as the world's best team any time soon. There is plenty of life after Xavi and Iniesta.