July 25, 2021

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16 Conclusions: The Euro 2020 final

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Gareth Southgate nailed it all tournament until the final. England can still hold their heads...

Gareth Southgate nailed it all tournament until the final. England can still hold their heads high but that will hurt in all sorts of ways.

 

1) The years of hurt continue. The origin is different yet entirely familiar. This pain, this final heartbreak is so much sharper than the dull ache of typical early disappointment. It stings. It torments. It lingers and runs deep. But in time most should see this as preferable. The scars will heal, the wreckage will clear and from it will emerge a stronger England, a better England, a more whole England than the one that entered this tournament.

They did us proud. They battled and fought and scrapped and scaled new heights. That only makes the unpredictably predictable fall more excruciating. England made us believe. Hell, we still believe. Football came home. It was never about the trophy but more the unity as a team and as a nation.

In the spirit of lockdown, Gareth Southgate had exorcised more than ever before this summer, both in terms of his personal and England’s collective demons: winning a knockout game; beating Germany; winning a semi-final; winning in extra-time; controlling games. That is what makes this so agonising. It was at the 2018 World Cup that they conquered their most inhibiting mental mountain but as soon as England felt they had reached that summit they lost their footing and slipped. It had to be penalties. It had to be Italy. Arrivederci, it’s one on one.

Defeat in that manner will reopen old wounds long thought to have been remedied. But it is better to collapse as you are pipped at the finish line after completely exerting yourself physically and mentally than it is to tie your own shoelaces together before wondering quite how you tripped running out of the blocks. England have exited the last two tournaments on penalties in the final and extra-time in the semi-final. In the couple before that they were beaten in the last 16 by Iceland and finished bottom of their group. It does not feel like it right now but this is the far better route to misery and sorrow. It is not often England can easily define an entire competition as more glorious than failure.

 

2) The merest of consolations for Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka is that they can share the historic burden. The hope is that England have come far enough as players and people that none are scapegoated in the media or by supporters, unlike their contemporaries of shootout trauma gone by. It remains to be seen whether any outlet tries its luck in vilifying any of these personable, endearing, honourable individuals for the crime of missing a net from 12 yards but one might suggest there is no longer a real audience for such mindless condemnation.

The three who missed their spot kicks could not wish for a better manager to support, guide and help carry the baggage that comes with their situation. Southgate has spoken openly and honestly about the struggles he encountered after Euro ’96 and they undoubtedly shaped him as both a player and a coach. Few would genuinely argue that it was not to his benefit.

There will be no front or back-page invective dressed as the consensus view. There will be no Pizza Hut adverts in an attempt to become part of the joke instead of the butt itself. But there will depressingly be abuse from some social media corners and mocking chants from some stadiums. There is no hiding the fact that much of that might relate more to their ethnicity than their ability to take a penalty. These people need no excuse but they will grab this one with no questions asked.

In Southgate, Rashford, Sancho and Saka have a manager to relate and commiserate with their professional plight. In this squad they have teammates and friends who have already shown themselves ready and willing to defend each other in personal battle. In the majority of this nation, those right-thinking people who can criticise but also sympathise and empathise, they have the necessary support. They are most certainly not the first to befall this fate and absolutely not the last.

 

3) Jordan Pickford carried his phenomenal performance during the 120 minutes into the shootout, keeping out Andrea Belotti and, with one sensational save, the stuttering Jorginho. He handed England an advantage with the former and a lifeline with the latter. Both were spurned.

Italy’s victory was cruellest of all on him. The Everton keeper saved as many penalties as Gianluigi Donnarumma despite the entire country scoffing at their height difference when the two embraced towards the halfway line before the kicks commenced. Size does not matter as long as you know how to use it.

Pickford’s is a reputation enhanced. In 690 minutes he conceded five times but not once in open play: a Denmark free-kick in the semi-final, an Italy corner in the final and then three penalties the Azzurri managed to put past him in a shootout he himself ensured England would take part in. His second-half saves from Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa were excellent. His shepherding away of an Emerson Palmieri cross in extra-time was wonderful. Even his save from Marco Verratti’s header after 67 minutes was exquisite but wasted as Leonardo Bonucci ghosted in to score the rebound. He could not possibly have done anymore either on Sunday night or indeed all summer.

 

4) It will be interesting to see how these players are treated when they return to club duty. No longer will – or should – the length of Pickford’s arms be mocked after thwarting Jorginho from 12 yards. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips should be admired both as individuals and a partnership instead of compared and contrasted in a game of constant one-upmanship. Harry Maguire must finally be appreciated as an elite centre-half, while John Stones is far more than just the random beneficiary of a central-defensive association with Ruben Dias.

That is not to say Harry Kane should be cheered at the Emirates or Luke Shaw must run out to rapturous applause from the Etihad when the Premier League season begins. But those previous instincts to boo and jeer have tangibly shifted somewhat: these players are now intrinsically attached to some lifelong memories that transcended club rivalries and that cannot be undone. These England players can still expect to face difficult atmospheres over the coming months but there will be a knowing wink and a nod, like the school bully who has formed a secret alliance with the class nerd and simply has to keep up appearances in front of everyone else.

 

5) Those who were expecting this to be Deep Woke versus deep block might have been surprised to see Italy press so high from kick-off. They took the knee along with England but treated it as a sprint-start thereafter, swarming the opposition and putting pressure on every pass. Stones and Phillips both played errant balls within the opening minute before Maguire was forced out wide and with no obvious option. It was one of Pickford’s few mistakes throughout as he failed to provide him an angle and the Manchester United centre-half passed the ball out for a corner in search of his goalkeeper.

It felt foreboding, like a goal was coming. And it was. Less than a minute later the chances of England holding out for a Euro 2012-style goalless draw were dashed. Maguire cleared the corner; Shaw collected the ball and started the move for his own goal. Italy had been countered into oblivion by a side continuing to showcase its tactical flexibility.

 

6) The clinching move of the goal was perhaps precisely as Southgate envisaged: wing-back to wing-back. Kieran Trippier was afforded time and space on the right to pick his cross, lofting it to the back post for Shaw to volley in off the post. The switch to a 3-4-3 formation in possession was designed to quell the threat of Italy’s width but another byproduct, if England were brave and accurate enough on the ball, was that they could create their own overloads.

But trace it back a little further and it was the best player of the opening half an hour that had created the opportunity. Kane had dropped deep, picking the ball up behind three teammates and essentially level with both Rice and Phillips in the sort of position you could imagine an apoplectic Rio Ferdinand circling at half-time while furiously pointing at the box and telling him he “needs to be there and waiting for the cross”.

His next action gave us the answer: taking the ball in his stride and into space as neither Giorgio Chiellini nor Leonardo Bonucci felt it worth following him, Kane burst forward and spread it wide to Trippier. Nine seconds later he was celebrating the opener.

The captain was sensational in those early stages. Italy could not cope with his movement. On two further occasions in the tenth and 12th minute he drifted into midfield and played the ball into Trippier as the right wing-back cavorted into the space the Italians had vacated trying to chase shadows. Kane won a couple of free-kicks on the halfway line to relieve pressure with that method, in one instance somehow emerging with the ball against three defenders and then later earning Nicolo Barella a booking in roughly the same area.

His influence unfortunately waned troubling far thereafter. No shots and no chances created is a fair reflection of how well the Italy centre-halves neutralised him when he ventured towards goal. Kane also completed just 36% of his passes from the start of the second half onwards, pointing to both a more general fatigue and England’s growing aversion to the ball.

But this was his fourth career final for club and country, the previous three all having passed by without Tottenham scoring. At least Kane got to savour the feeling of a goal this time, albeit someone else’s. As justifiable as his complaints about a lack of trophies are, he is yet to correct that relative injustice when given the ultimate opportunity.

 

7) At that stage it felt as though Southgate had hacked into the matrix, that he was some sort of major tournament alchemist who had simply figured out the equation and was waiting for everyone else to catch up and appreciate him. The formation change was his latest decisive call and this seemed like yet another correct decision.

Everything else he had touched before this final turned to golden generation-shaming excellence. Deploying wing-backs at Wembley again seemed to confound Italy but they eventually worked out the answer and Southgate did not appear prepared for the possibility of anyone talking back to him. The second-half response was weak and passive, the substitutions too late and the call to bring on two players for specific shootout purposes was management at its most marginal. The line between genius and madness is already razor thin in a final but introducing Rashford and Sancho for penalties when defending a stoppage-time corner brought it into an even sharper focus. Score and it was vindicated. Miss and it was foolish. Unlike pretty much every other managerial decision, there could be no middle ground.

The weight of expectation placed upon those kicks cannot be downplayed. For both Rashford and Sancho it was their third touch. Three of the five penalty scorers started the match and four of the five who missed were substitutes. It is a practice that feels a little outdated when every single player does them in training now and the standard across the board is so high.

 

8) England looked in control. Italy were rattled. It was their first real setback of the tournament and there was no hiding it. But the best part is that England actually sought to exploit it. They wound up the opposition: Maguire rolling the ball forward a little further from a free-kick to the frustration of an arm-waving Ciro Immobile; Mason Mount standing in front of a short free-kick to block it from being taken. From one particular long ball over the top Raheem Sterling feigned to challenge for a header before suddenly changing his course, predicting the ball’s path and putting his body in the way of Chiellini to win a free-kick in the Italy half with no teammate within 15 yards of him.

It was masterful game management from a team against whom such tactics have often been utilised to frustrate and exasperate. The only shame is that England had about an hour left to waste and Italy would only allow themselves to be pulled into the trap for so long.

Harry Kane, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Declan Rice and Marco Verratti

 

9) The warning came in the 35th minute when Federico Chiesa was played in on the right around the halfway line. He glided past Shaw and advanced almost through Rice despite the West Ham midfielder trying to tackle him twice. The England defence retreated, the Italy forward accepted the invite and the low shot was driven just wide of Pickford’s post, the goalkeeper stranded.

It was the first time England looked vulnerable and exposed. Italy spent the first half an hour passing the ball accurately but with no incision, managing two off-target Insigne efforts as England managed and defended the space around their area impeccably. But as soon as someone worked outside those comfortable parameters and actually drove forward with purpose the cracks in the plan started to form.

Had Chiesa not been forced off with a few minutes of normal time remaining this game might not have made it to penalties. In terms of impact and shifting momentum he was the man of the match, even if Bonucci was the more obvious choice as the determined goalscoring defender.

 

10) England really did withdraw into themselves after that scare. Italy continued to gain territory. The hosts understandably chose to call everyone back to defend but that starved them of an outlet on the occasion they did recover the ball. The only real release valve was Rice, who did brilliantly to scurry away on his own to relieve the pressure. From the 35th minute to half-time he made two tackles and completed three dribbles while England had 25.7% possession.

For context, no Italy player completed more than three dribbles all game and Phillips was the only other England player to make more than a single tackle throughout.

Rice was spectacular. His only real fault was in not passing the ball soon enough on the odd occasion but each time it came after a bursting run forward through the lines and his options were limited. If there are still those who doubt his ability at this level then either show them the 73 minutes he had on the pitch or the 47 he had off it; both quite succinctly sum up his importance.

 

11) It is not difficult to understand why England waited out the remainder of the first half. It is less straightforward to figure out the plan thereafter. Southgate surely realised that such submissive, unassertive tactics would come undone eventually, that England could not hope to hold out for another 45 minutes. Legs would tire but equally minds would falter. It must be exhausting to constantly be aware of your surroundings and maintain communication lines with various different teammates.

The cliched temptation is to say they scored too early. The truth is that Italy capitalised on their period of ascendancy whereas England never really took full advantage of theirs. Roberto Mancini introduced Bryan Cristante and Domenico Berardi early in the second half and that swayed the game further.

Berardi was absolutely crucial. He transformed the game. Immobile had succumbed to nominative determinism against the deep-lying England defence but Berardi’s movement truly tested them. He freed up Insigne and Chiesa and even occupied Rice and Phillips in midfield, helping Jorginho and Verratti take over.

He came on in the 54th minute. Between the 55th minute and the 75th, Italy had three-quarters of the possession, dominated and scored their equalising goal. In that 20-minute period England had 19 touches in the opposition half, summed up quite neatly when Maguire intercepted a pass, drove forward a couple of yards and then leathered the ball into the stands because there was no outlet ahead of him to even pass to.

The Bonucci goal from a corner had been an incredibly long and agonising time coming yet Southgate waited until inevitability struck to change anything. After a pitch-perfect tournament, that was the wrong key.

 

12) Saka and Henderson were the players he called upon, a mixture of youth and experience that typified his approach to this squad. It is thus a shame that neither had the proposed impact.

It would have been difficult for any England player to come on and change the perception of the match at that stage. Many would have called for Jack Grealish but while he can defend and track back, it simply is not his strength.

With that said, it did not appear to be Henderson’s in his more than half an hour as essentially a passenger. No tackles, no interceptions, no clearances, no blocks. A couple of passes gave Sterling potential openings to work but it honestly felt like a waste of a substitute. And some would have started him.

The clamour is often for younger, more stylish players but Jude Bellingham would have progressed the ball better while sacrificing nothing less in terms of a defensive edge.

As for Saka, he and Shaw had an infuriating tendency to pass the ball either slightly too far behind or in front of each other in promising positions. England could not really afford such misuse of possession. But at least in the Arsenal player’s case he was a distinct threat: no teammate was fouled more often despite the fact he only played 50 minutes. That literal Chiellini collaring in second-half stoppage-time was a real highlight.

Giorgio Chiellini fouls Bukayo Saka

 

13) Chiellini and Bonucci were predictably fearsome. The latter was strong in the first half and did wonderfully to block a Sterling cross in extra-time when Mount benefited from a lucky bounce. The former tangled with Sterling in the area and somehow managed to recover to tackle the forward from a prone position about four yards out with ten minutes remaining. They must be absolutely infuriating to play against, both doing so on bookings for at least half an hour. England never took advantage of that.

An examination of their record together makes this victory no surprise. They have lost just three times when starting as a central-defensive pairing for Italy: against Belgium in a friendly in November 2015; against Brazil in the Confederations Cup in June 2013; and against Ivory Coast in a friendly in August 2010. England were literally up against it from the start.

 

14) In the end it was 95 minutes that separated England’s first and second shots from open play. Phillips dragged an attempt just wide after a corner was cleared, before Grealish had an effort blocked almost at the point of conception. The reliance on set-pieces still lingers.

But extra-time, as it often is, was soon gripped by the spectre of penalties. Pickford only made one save in the additional 30 minutes, keeping out Federico Bernadeschi with relative ease.

One moment of real note in this period came when Jorginho and Grealish competed for a loose ball. The England midfielder quite easily won the race and his Italy opponent congratulated him by sinking his studs into the knee.

It seemed like a mistake. Jorginho’s foot slipped off the top of the ball and onto Grealish’s leg. But it clearly endangered the opponent and was undeniably reckless: he had no control over where his foot ended up. Bjorn Kuipers, otherwise a little consistent but not offensively so, was wrong in showing only a yellow card. Jorginho perhaps spared himself anything worse by staying down and complaining of his own injury.

 

15) The obvious fear then was that the Chelsea midfielder would score the decisive penalty in the shootout, as he had against Spain. But Pickford was brilliantly equal to it. It was then on Saka, a 19-year-old taking his first professional spot kick in a major international tournament final, to score and keep his country in the game.

That was negligent. From Southgate, who should have known better. From his more senior teammates, who should have stepped up. Someone had to take that decision out of Saka’s hands, to remove that ludicrous responsibility he felt prepared to take on. The Arsenal player might well have excelled taking penalties in training but not in front of supporters, not at Wembley and not in a sudden-death scenario in a tournament final. That is why there should be no blame apportioned to him, Rashford or Sancho: others did not step up. Credit to Kane for his effort and to Maguire, who might well have taken the single greatest penalty ever seen.

 

16) The worst part of those 55 years of hurt were the final hours. It felt like a ridiculous decision to have the final kick-off at 8pm, a cherry that no-one wanted atop a cake the organisers had spent the whole month making less and less appetising.

Euro 2020 has been a sensational tournament in spite of UEFA, most certainly not because of them.

It was confirmed to be an awful call by the scenes outside and, indeed, inside Wembley before the game. Some of the footage is appalling. When someone inserting a firework into their back-three formation is not the most egregious and offensive act of an afternoon and evening then something has gone dreadfully wrong.

The only hope is that England fans have the opportunity to become a little more accustomed to these occasions. England feel primed for the 2022 World Cup in a way they never really were ahead of this tournament. It was only during this European Championship that we had our eyes opened to what these players were capable of, and that is as one of the youngest squads in the competition. Another 18 months of experience at club and international level should push their development on further for Qatar, at which the expectation level will finally match that which the teams of the 1990s and 2000s had to operate under.

They will be among the favourites. On this basis, they have earned that much. But it remains to be seen how well they carry their own personal England anguish instead of the residual misery dropping down from previous generations. Some will emerge stronger. Some really may not.

An England fan

The post 16 Conclusions: The Euro 2020 final appeared first on Football365.

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