For the first time in 55 years, England’s men are in the final of a major international tournament.
Do not readjust your screens. Read it once. Read it twice. Drink it in.
The Three Lions were taken all the way by Denmark in Wednesday night’s semi-final but ultimately battled their way into Sunday’s showpiece against Italy at Wembley.
In doing so, Gareth Southgate ended a run of two-consecutive tournament semi-final defeats after going out of the 2018 World Cup to Croatia and the Uefa Nations League to the Netherlands in 2019 (though the latter isn’t recognised by many as a major tournament).
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Much has changed since 2018, not just in terms of the playing squad but also from Southgate himself. Lessons needed to be learned and bad habits wiped clean to take this squad further than any other England side in European Championships history.
So, in what ways has Southgate changed to inspire England this far? Here are four.
1. Defensive solidity
Although England’s run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals was impressive, it wasn’t without its flaws. One of those flaws was an apparent lack of defensive solidity, with the Three Lions keeping just one clean sheet from their seven games at the tournament, against Sweden in the quarter-finals. Tunisia, Panama and Colombia all managed to breach their backline, as well as Croatia and Belgium three times across two meetings.
And in the Uefa Nations League thereafter, despite making out of a tough group to reach the finals tournament, England conceded four goals to Spain alone, and another against Croatia. In the semi-finals against the Netherlands, they went 1-0 up before mistakes and a lack of quality on the ball saw them overturned 2-1 by Ronald Koeman’s side.
But this summer, it’s a completely different story. Ahead of Wednesday night’s semi-final, England were the only side at Euro 2020 yet to concede a goal. Sure, they had some nervous moments, not least Thomas Muller’s opportunity in the round-of-16. But on the whole, Southgate’s side have been dominant and rock-solid at the back, whether with Tyrone Mings partnering John Stones at the start of the tournament or Harry Maguire returning from the Czech Republic game onwards.
Stones and Maguire have been aggressive in winning the ball back, Kyle Walker’s pace has been a lifeline when defending against counter-attacks, and the midfield duo of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips have screened with wonderful discipline. Although he’s had some nervous moments, Jordan Pickford has also come up with some huge saves and performances when those in front of him were beaten.
What was mistaken for negativity during pre-tournament friendlies against Austria and Romania has now been rightly understood as Southgate practising the art of pragmatism and, without it, there’s no way England would have made it this far.
2. Coming from behind and managing the game
As mentioned, once the Netherlands got in front in the Nations League last four, there was no way England were coming back. That was also the case against Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. In both games, England had led and then allowed the opponent to dominate, with Frenkie de Jong and Luka Modric pulling the strings for their respective sides.
Having not conceded a goal, that obviously hadn’t been the case at this tournament so far, with England taking the lead and seeing the game out in all but one of their matches with the exception of the 0-0 draw against Scotland. That in itself is brilliant game management, as is Southgate’s perfect timing with his substitutions during the 4-0 win over Ukraine, resting tired legs and giving minutes to those who needed them.
So, heading into the semi-final, one question remained: what happens when England go behind? Mikkel Damsgaard’s 30th-minute free-kick for Denmark posed that question and the response was astounding. England immediately kicked into gear and delivered an onslaught of attacks on the Danish goal. Just nine minutes later, they were level via a Simon Kjaer own-goal, just moments after Raheem Sterling had missed a glorious opportunity.
Southgate’s side continued to dominate from there and when the winning goal finally came in extra-time, it felt utterly deserved, even if the decision to award a penalty was somewhat controversial. From there, England managed the game beautifully, playing keep-ball and ensuring Denmark would spend the final minutes chasing shadows (down to 10 men due to injury) and meeting themselves coming back.
England's keep-ball at the end last night was absolutely sensational. One of the my favourite moments watching the national team and game management I've never seen from #ENG
— Chris Smith ⚽✍️ (@CJSmith91) July 8, 2021
This is all invaluable experience heading into Sunday’s final, though we shouldn’t be too surprised at England rising to adversity given they had to come from 1-0 down against Croatia in their final Nations League group game just two years ago.
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3. How to beat a big nation
As mentioned, following the World Cup, England pulled off a wonderful 3-2 victory over Spain in Seville in the Nations League (a scoreline that flattered the hosts) and exacted some revenge on Croatia, too. In the following Nations League campaign, they even managed to beat a Belgium side ranked No.1 in the world back in October.
And yet, questions still remained regarding whether or not England could take on a top nation on the biggest stage of all after losing three times to Croatia and Belgium at the World Cup and, of course, considering their unsavoury long-term record at major tournaments.
Well, if once again beating Croatia in the opening match of Euro 2020 wasn’t enough, the Three Lions then finally put the ghost of Germany to bed in the round-of-16, winning 2-0 at Wembley and eliminating Die Mannschaft from a major tournament for the first time since the 1966 World Cup final.
England have eliminated Germany in a major tournament for the first time since 1966.
England have beaten Germany at Wembley Stadium for the first since 1975.
England have beaten Germany in a major tournament for the first time since 2000.
Wow. Just wow. 🤩 pic.twitter.com/QpokjK8Iq9
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 29, 2021
Even the win over Denmark deserves credit in this regard considering Kasper Hjulmand’s side are ranked 10th in the world, above Germany (12th), Croatia (14th) and the Netherlands (16th).
Repeating this feat again on Sunday against Italy will seal immortality for this group of players and staff.
4. Managing mavericks, utilising his squad and tactics
Heading into the Euros, many were questioning whether or not Southgate knew his best XI. Would he be bold and field all of his best playmakers at once, or would he go for all-out pace? In the end, he hasn’t really had to settle for a best XI, instead employing a brilliant rotation policy that has seen 20 of the 23 outfield players in his squad play at least once. Even the ones that haven’t taken to the pitch can be seen encouraging their teammates and getting well involved in post-match celebrations following recent wins. This has very much been a group effort.
Of course, implementing that sort of rotation policy has also involved carefully managing the minutes of Southgate’s so-called ‘mavericks’. Playmakers and dribblers who are best suited to punching a hole through a tired defence in the closing minutes or going up against a specific kind of opponent. The fact these players have responded to Southgate’s methods even when switching formations — such as going with a 3-4-3 against Germany to nullify wing-backs — is another credit to their manager’s ability to get the best out of his squad and his tactical intelligence, something he was accused of lacking in the wake of the World Cup.
Most recently, Southgate was incredibly brave in bringing off Jack Grealish just 36 minutes after he’d entered the semi-final against Denmark from the bench. But Grealish had done his job, giving England territorial dominance with his ball-carrying and putting the Danish defence on edge with his ability to draw fouls. The Aston Villa captain has been carrying a shin injury for a while now but has been used expertly by Southgate, turning England’s game against Germany on its head from the bench as just another example. The same goes for Phil Foden who started the first two group games but was then left out until coming off the bench against Denmark, looking wonderfully secure on the ball and always looking to make something happen when he had it.
— Jack Grealish (@JackGrealish) July 7, 2021
Most of all, Jadon Sancho would likely have the biggest gripe having spent just 96 minutes on the pitch so far. But he tore Ukraine to shreds during his only start of the tournament, hasn’t once complained about his role and will remain a game-changing option from the bench in the final against Italy.
Even sticking with Harry Kane through his poor group-stage form feels inspired with the gift of hindsight. The captain has since gone on to score four goals in three knockout games and is linking play superbly in a similar manner that he does at club level with Tottenham.
Tournament football isn’t easy and playing the right players at the right time, or introducing a substitute just when your team needs it most is an art form for managers. One Southgate now has down to a tee.
The last unknown: How to win a final
Obviously, there is one challenge coming up for which Southgate has absolutely no experience to call upon: winning the final as England’s senior team manager.
As a player, Southgate lifted the League Cup with both Aston Villa and Middlesbrough. In the dugout, the closest experience he has to this is lifting the Toulon Tournament in 2016 with England U-21s, beating France 2-1 in the final.
But none of that even comes close to what he’ll be up against this Sunday, with the whole world watching, an entire nation expectant and a formidable Italian side going for glory themselves.
That said, within his squad, Southgate has the likes of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and Dominic Calvert-Lewin who have all won major finals for England at youth levels. And he has often spoken about how this crop of players are unburdened by the failures of previous squads and the expectations that come with playing for England.
“People will obviously look at the quality of some of the opponents, but I think over the years we have had players where the shirt has hung heavy and the performances have reflected that,” Southgate said following England’s qualification for this tournament.
“We put out a team the other day with an average age of 23, the youngest team for 60 years.
“There are young players coming in loving playing for England, really playing with freedom and expression, thinking about what is possible on the field rather than worrying about losing the game or what might happen in those sort of fixtures.”
Reaching semi-finals. Beating Germany. Getting to the final. Southgate has already shown he’s an expert in tearing down barriers. Just one more to go.