England Come Close, But No Cigar

England

Before the final of Euro 2020, it had been fifty-five years since the England men’s football team reached the last game of the major tournament. Much was made of the 1966 World Cup Final in the build-up to the game. That, too, was held in London. After two generations, it genuinely had begun to feel like the famous “Three Lions” song so beloved by England supporters was correct – football was truly coming home. When Manchester United’s rejuvenated left-back Luke Shaw gave his country the lead just three minutes into the game, expectations became higher than ever. In the end, though, it just wasn’t to be. Italy won on penalties, and the trophy slipped from England’s grasp.

Nobody knows how long it will be before England reach another major tournament final. Perhaps it will happen at the World Cup in Qatar next year. Maybe it will take another fifty-plus years. What’s for sure, though, is that Gareth Southgate and his players found their way back into the hearts of a jaded English public. Fans have learned to be disappointed in the performances of their national team for decades. The so-called “Golden Generation” of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and company never got close to a tournament final. This less-outspoken, lower-profile group of players did. They might have ended up in second place, but they’ve become heroes nonetheless.

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Could it have been different, though? Could England have gone all the way? Were mistakes made that led to defeat on the night? The answer, regrettably, is probably “yes” – and it all comes down to substitutions. Fans have learned no to question Southgate’s defensive mindset and tactics. There were grumblings of discontent toward the start of the tournament, but after the Round of 16 victory over Germany, those grumblings went away. Southgate might prefer caution over flair, but his tactics worked. That’s why there were few protests when he fielded seven defensive players against Italy in the final. The suspicion was that England would proceed with caution but had enough attacking threat on the bench to overwhelm Italy if it became necessary. It did become necessary as the end of the second half approached, but Southgate didn’t respond.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Southgate had thrown on Sancho and Rashford earlier than he did, but by the time they arrived on the pitch, the game was inevitably headed for penalties. We appreciate that throwing caution to the wind earlier than that would have been a risk, but risks are sometimes necessary. Using substitutes is like playing an online slots game. You gamble in the hope of a positive outcome, but you can’t foresee all the consequences. Many of the online slots games at Rose Slots IE offer you a slightly better chance of success if you increase the size of your wager, but “slightly better” doesn’t mean “guaranteed.” We don’t know much about Southgate’s hobbies away from the football pitch, but we suspect that he doesn’t play online slots. He stuck to his system even when it looked like Italy’s players were beginning to tire, and it eventually led to a dead heat.

Conventional footballing wisdom tells you that you shouldn’t throw players onto a pitch purely to take penalties. They don’t have any time to acclimatise to the game, and their nerves are unlikely to have settled by the time they’re called upon for the all-important moment. Under normal circumstances, neither Marcus Rashford nor Jadon Sancho would have any concerns about putting a penalty into the back of the net. On the night, having barely touched the ball before the final whistle, it was a different story. Rashford, who once hammered home an incredible pressure penalty for Manchester United against Paris Saint Germain in the UEFA Champions League, hit the post. Sancho’s tame effort was saved. Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford saved two of Italy’s penalties – including one from Chelsea’s Jorghino, who almost never misses – but it wasn’t enough. 19-year-old Arsenal midfielder Bukayo Saka’s penalty was also saved by Donnarumma in the Italy goal, and England’s dreams were shattered.

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Many pundits, including Manchester United legend Roy Keane, felt that Saka shouldn’t have been left in that predicament at such a young age. After the game, he said that more experienced players like Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling or Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish should have stepped up to take the crucial penalty instead. Many fans agreed with him. Grealish responded on Twitter to say that he’d volunteered to take a penalty and would happily have done so. Sterling’s position may have been different. For all his excellence in this tournament, the winger has missed his last three penalties for Manchester City and may understandably have lacked the confidence to try to break that trend at such a crucial moment. Southgate eventually confirmed that the decision on who would take penalties and when was his, and his alone.

Criticising Southgate doesn’t seem fair at this precise moment, but with the benefit of hindsight, it seems like a bad call. Grealish is in form, experienced, and serves as Aston Villa’s captain. He’s a mature player who’s used to dealing with responsibility. Saka is at the very beginning of his career and had never been in this position before. Why anyone would see Saka as a better option than Grealish for England’s fifth and final penalty is hard to comprehend, just as leaving a player as creative as Sancho on the bench for so long is hard to comprehend. On the other hand, Southgate watched these players in training every day for the entire tournament. He knows and sees things that we don’t know or see. Whatever he got wrong, he still took an England team further than any manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.

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The gap between international tournaments is smaller than usual because of the lateness of the European Championships. We’re fewer than eighteen months away from the beginning of the 2022 World Cup. Southgate intends to stay on as manager and will be allowed to do so. None of the players in his squad are so old that they’ll be retired by the time the tournament arrives. Presuming they qualify – which should be given – this England side will come again. They’ll learn from this, and they’ll believe they can go even further. Could the disappointment of defeat in the finals of Euro 2020 lead to an England World Cup victory in 2022? Time will tell, but fans have already begun to dream.

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