Even as the noise swelled and the pressure mounted, Gareth Southgate stood firm as the youngest England side this century recorded a statement win in Spain.
After an electric first half that had witnessed three slick breakaway goals, England were creaking, as Paco Alcacer headed in for 3-1 and Jordan Pickford almost gifted Rodrigo a second.
On the touchline, Southgate stayed arms folded, making one change before the 85th minute, and that came in the 76th, Kyle Walker replacing a weary Ross Barkley.
Perhaps he believed England could hold on. Perhaps there was merit in giving these players the chance to do it too.
After all, they had reached the World Cup semifinals, but with the advantage of a fortuitous draw. When Croatia and Belgium, twice, came calling, England came up short.
Now they have handed Spain their first competitive defeat at home for 15 years, scoring three times in the first half against a team rejuvenated under a new coach in Luis Enrique.
It was only a month ago Spain had obliterated Croatia 6-0 and, despite the 2-1 scoreline, outplayed England at Wembley too.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” said Raheem Sterling, who scored twice, along with another from Marcus Rushford. “It was a brilliant team performance. “When the whistle blew after a breathless 98 minutes at the Estadio Benito Villamarin, the talk was of England’s most impressive victory since they beat Germany 5-1 in Munich in 2001.
There was the shoot-out triumph against Colombia and the summer stroll over Sweden to go within a game of the World cup final. They have seen off Germany, France, and Brazil as well in friendlies.
But in terms of a competitive match, you have to go back 16 years to Sapporo, and David Beckham’s penalty against Argentina, for England’s last winner.
This was not a World cup, nor even a European Championship, and Southgate will not pretend the surprisingly compelling Nations League is as competitive as either.
But Spain were desperate to win. When Pickford scrambled the ball off Rodrigo, Spain’s players harangued the referee for a penalty. When Sergio Ramos headed home in the 98th minute, they sprinted back to the center circle, in the hope of one final attack.
England held on, another injection of belief again for a team that had an average age of just over 23, their youngest since the turn of the century.
UEFA NATIONS LEAGUE
(Francisco Alcacer 58, Sergio Ramos 90+7)
(Raheem Sterling 16, 38, Marcus Rashford 29)
(Alfred Finnbogason 81)
(Haris Seferovic 52, Michael Lang 67)
Saudi Arabia 0
(Gabriel Jesus 43, Alex Sandro 90+6)
(Takumi Minamino 10, 66, Yuya Osako 36, Ritsu Doan 59)
(Gaston Pereiro 28, Edinson Cavani 57, Jonathan Rodriguez 75).
From Online Sources