Discover more from Grace on Football
The England Retrospective: Euro 2020
Look, it's the last one, I'm not doing the number but it's part 19.
This whole series has been for paid subscribers, but I’ve made the final edition free for all, as I did with the first article. If you’re enjoying this and would like to read about the past twenty years of the national team, along with articles all season long about club football, please consider subscribing to Grace on Football. It’s still on offer! And while it’s coming out ok for me, this article is long enough that your email host might clip it, so consider clicking the headline to read it on the site instead.
“When I’ve watched the French and Portuguese, teams that have won, they are savvy and experienced winners. And that’s something we have to add to this group.”
— Gareth Southgate
“The day that I bought my mum a house, that was probably the happiest I’ve ever been.”
— Raheem Sterling
“It was a masterclass, weren’t it?”
— Jack Grealish
“It is quite true that the English are hypocritical about their Empire. In the working class this hypocrisy takes the form of not knowing that the Empire exists.”
— George Orwell
“Fifteen years from now, kids are going to be asking ‘hey Granddad, is it true that Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford were all in this squad and they hardly ever played?’”
— Gabriele Marcotti
“These days, if you say you’re English, you get arrested and thrown in jail”
— Stewart Lee
There are few things I’ve ever wanted in my life as much as I wanted England to win the European Championships.
At the same time, I was terrified of what the country would become if we had pulled it off.
Because that’s England for you.
When the world shut down in March 2020 and the European Championships were delayed by a year, Gareth Southgate used it as an excuse for a bit of a rethink. His side played some really exciting stuff in the qualifiers, but they lacked any real solidity or structure beyond blowing lesser teams away on the counter-attack. He knew that they’d need more against the better teams.
So he reportedly decided to commission a study into what made the best international sides tick. After the last two major tournaments had been won by a very defensive France and a veeeeeerrrrrrrry defensive Portugal, the study shockingly came out with the answer that defence wins championships. I’ve no idea of what this study’s methodology looked like, but it certainly feels like a case of mistaking correlation for causation. Regardless, England did have defensive problems that needed fixing, so it at least highlighted an issue.
His first move to make the team more solid was to bring Kyle Walker back into the side. This was September 2020, and everyone who was anyone agreed Walker was some way behind Trent Alexander-Arnold. The latter, though, was a one-of-a-kind creative force who left something to be desired on the defensive side of the game. Walker was certainly the less exciting option, but he’d give England a different sort of balance. It also helped that John Stones re-emerged as a credible option while Joe Gomez suffered a season-ending injury. Stones and Harry Maguire as a partnership would need the recovery pace of Walker.
He then experimented with both back three and back four systems. The former would reunite the World Cup trio of Walker, Stones and Maguire in front of Jordan Pickford and behind a double pivot of Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson (to be replaced in the Euros by Kalvin Phillips). Kieran Trippier, Reece James and Alexander-Arnold would compete for the right wing-back slot where Southgate was really spoilt for choice, with Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell the options on the left. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling were a given in attack, while that third spot was up for grabs.
It was clear, though, that a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid was Southgate’s preference. This involved a lopsided shape with Sterling playing high on the left and the right-winger much more reserved. The attack was all about the Sterling/Kane connection, and in order to stay solid, there wasn’t room for a third attacker to really push up. This was bad news for both Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish. Phil Foden, however, fit the bill as someone who can be less of an explosive attacker and more of a hard-working wide midfielder. Mason Mount, meanwhile, would use his tactical intelligence to function as a third central midfielder who pushes up as a number ten. This was going to be Southgate’s default shape. It wasn’t going to offer the attacking verve many in the country craved, but that was entirely deliberate.
Their purposes and aims were obviously far, far more wide reaching than this, but in the long run, the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 changed football more than the pandemic. I can’t really do justice to the topic in this newsletter, and nor am I the right person to do it, so I’ll trust that you can read the many wonderful words written on it by Black writers and I’ll focus on how it affected English football. For such a poisonous industry, this is somewhere we really saw the best of football, and the collective knee taking marked out this generation of players as outstanding socially conscious ambassadors.
These are players who clearly care about trying to make the world a better place. Marcus Rashford’s work is the most obvious example of this. At a time when the British government was attempting to use footballers’ wages as a distraction from their catastrophic pandemic management, Rashford’s fight against child hunger made it clear these were fundamentally decent people trying to do the right thing. The days of footballers dismissed as pampered millionaires were over. If there was a single good reason to get behind the national team, it was this group of individuals.
That didn’t stop a degree of backlash, of course. English football existed in a bit of a cocoon for the 2020-21 season, playing behind closed doors and largely ignored by non-fans. This of course changed in the buildup to the Euros. During both of England’s warm-up games, a section (I honestly have no idea how big this section was) decided to boo the players kneeling. If you asked those supporters, they’d tell you they don’t support a “Marxist organisation opposed to British values”, or that the knee is “divisive”. Personally, I don’t buy it, and I think their objection is simply to a social movement that makes them feel uncomfortable in its aim to imagine a different world. To the game’s credit, virtually everyone within football backed the players and urged fans to stop the boos. The culture wartime government, frustrated at being asked to do the job of handling a pandemic, was happy to latch onto this. Home Secretary Priti Patel responded by pretending the knee taking was primarily about statues and “rewriting our history” (as though that isn’t the purpose of the statues). Boris Johnson largely tried to avoid the subject, but his spokesperson did add that “on taking the knee, specifically, the prime minister is more focused on action rather than gestures”. I’m not entirely sure what those actions he’s focused on are.
The right-wing culture warriors of the country, which present themselves as powerless victims despite their ranks including the actual government, sniffed blood. England would crash out of the tournament, and they could pin it all on “woke virtue signalling”. None of these people actually cared about football, but it was an easy shortcut.
On the pitch, England had been drawn in a group with Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic. It wasn’t a hard group on paper, but it had symbolic importance. I don’t think I need to explain that England against Scotland is a big fixture, so we’ll ignore that for a moment. But Croatia was the rematch from 2018. This happened back in the Nations League, but here was a real yardstick of how much England have improved. Alternatively, it could be read as a question of Croatia’s decline. Four of the team that knocked the Three Lions out in Russia, most notably Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, had retired from international football. The balance of power might just have swung in England’s direction.
Southgate picked the expected team but with one surprise: Trippier played at left-back. (Tyrone Mings started in place of the injured Maguire, but everyone expected that.) This was an odd choice with two good specialist left-backs in the squad, and it indicated a plan to play with a narrow back four. It had been reported in the week before the match that he considered moving to a back three, and this seemed like a compromise between the two shapes.
England started brightly but faded. Foden was drifting inside to great effect in the first 20 minutes, but Croatia quickly figured out they needed to shut him down. Then a certain pattern emerged. Croatia were good in central areas and looked to create through possession, just as they did three years earlier. But they found it much harder to produce. This was due to both Croatia’s problems and England’s strengths. From a Croatian perspective, they were much more reliant on Luka Modric in the absence of Rakitic. Everything had to go through him, and it made it much easier for England to disrupt Croatia’s passing game. But the Three Lions were also much better structured to defend this than in the past. The narrow back four covered Croatia’s forward line much better, and they were able to stay high up the pitch instead of getting sucked deeper and deeper.
They lacked a lot in possession, though. Mount and, increasingly, Foden struggled to influence the game. Kane looked worryingly static. The only person making runs in behind was Sterling and the only person looking to progress the ball through midfield was Phillips. So of course that was exactly how the goal came. Phillips broke forward and found Sterling’s run into the box, and the Manchester City man didn’t miss from point-blank range. England were off and running. They just had to keep it tight like they had all game, which they did, and they were home and dry.
The pair were clearly England’s best performers on the day. For Phillips, this was something of a breakout game for most fans beyond the Leeds faithful to see how much he offered. For Sterling, this was vindication for a man frequently criticised. He was asked in the post-match interview whether he had “justified his selection”, to which he seemed bemused. This had been a club season where Sterling had largely lost his starting place to Foden and Riyad Mahrez. England’s depth in the wide areas was frightening. But Sterling was never going to be dropped due to how well he’d been playing for the national side in the past three seasons. He was Southgate’s man, through and through. That level of trust was never in question.
Next came the oldest fixture in international football. England and Scotland have always made strange bedfellows, on and off the pitch. The constitutional arrangement of the United Kingdom involves pretending this is a partnership of equals (Wales and Northern Ireland don’t even get that fiction). The UK passport comes with the royal coat of arms on the front, in which the lion of England stands in equal prominence with the unicorn of Scotland. The official party lion is of partners, not subordinates. But in every way that matters, the scales are tipped heavily in England’s favour. It’s inevitable to an extent. England makes up 85% of the UK’s population, with more than ten times as many people as Scotland. No other nation has this sort of geographical disparity. In football terms, Scotland and England are officially each other’s biggest rivals, but it can never really be seen as a fair fight.
On a personal level, it’s the game I look forward to least. I started supporting England as a child largely to try and fit in at school, but beyond that, most of my formative years watching football were with my very much Scottish father. I know it’s sacrosanct, but I really did want both countries to do well in this tournament. It doesn’t feel like it, but demographically I know I’m far from the only one with a foot in both camps here.
Southgate changed his full-backs, bringing in Shaw and Reece James, but otherwise kept the side the same. It... wasn’t great. Scotland were able to prevent England from moving the ball into dangerous areas very easily. It was a really good tactical set-up from Steve Clarke, but England should have been smarter to it. The passmap from Between the Posts sums up the problem nicely: it’s all going across the back four then to the wingers. Southgate’s side just weren’t able to progress the ball through midfield. A 0-0 draw was hardly undeserved. It didn’t matter too much in terms of qualifying for the knockout stages, but it suggested real tactical issues.
The final group game against Czech Republic was a little more expansive, and a point where Southgate could try things. Mount was forced to self-isolate, so the nation’s favourite Jack Grealish played as a ten. Grealish is much more adventurous in the role than Mount, and forced England to change. The most notable inclusion here, though, was Bukayo Saka on the right in place of Foden. This seemed to be a lightbulb moment for Southgate. He wanted a more defensive-minded winger on the right to contrast with Sterling, but needed someone with the speed to break forward on the counter. Foden suited a more possession-based game and couldn’t get involved from the position. Sancho was the most talented option of all, but would necessitate a tactical rethink as he’d offer a much more attacking option on that flank. Saka ticked all the boxes nicely. And he gave a great account of himself, showing what he can offer driving forward into space and getting England up the pitch. He fit the system like a glove, and was the big positive of a fairly routine win on the night.
England were through without being scintillating. Public mood was fairly muted. England were doing ok, but there was nothing to get excited about. There was no defining moment in the group stage. There hadn’t been a triumphant win that anyone could really point towards and say “yes, England have achieved something here”.
The draw was about to see to that.
I often find it hard to figure out what Germany thinks of England. Do they think about us at all? Presumably they must have some sort of opinion on us. If you’re German and reading this, please tell me what your country thinks of England. But to us, consciously or not, Germany is the standard against which our own country is judged. Hell, I wrote about it right at the beginning of this series:
“Through some Second World War related angst, usually expressed in crude and xenophobic ways, England has become obsessed with Germany. They’re the yardstick against which we judge ourselves. I think this inferiority complex is an underrated factor in the Brexit vote. The Germans are, correctly or not, perceived as the dominant nation in the European Union. We say that bothers us due to notions of wanting “independence”, but I suspect we secretly just don’t like the idea of being a junior partner with Germany. Surely we should be in charge of the EU, not them?”
In footballing terms, England had been sorely lacking by this standard for some time. Germany has long had the upper hand in the fixture, and they’ve certainly been better at winning trophies, but the games used to be close enough that we could politely pretend these were evenly matched opponents. 2010 blew that idea apart. An ageing England were so clearly inferior to an exciting new Germany side that it kickstarted an identity crisis in English football. This was always the standard and we were a million miles off.
In other words: if Southgate and his players want to show this team is different, beat Germany.
Jogi Low had switched to a 3-4-3 shape for this tournament. The whole system was about getting it out to the wing-backs – Robin Goesens and Joshua Kimmich – and run the team through their quality out wide. They really covered the width of the pitch. The wing-backs had the wide areas covered, while Kai Havertz and Thomas Muller attacked the half-spaces with Timo Werner running in behind from the centre-forward spot. England didn’t have the right approach to deal with this, so Southgate had to change. Fortunately, he still had the back three in his repertoire.
Southgate’s approach was pretty much to simply match Germany up man for man. England’s three centre backs Walker, Stones and Maguire would take on Germany’s front three. Trippier and Shaw would be there to shut down Kimmich and Goesens. Rice and Phillips would contest the midfield against Toni Kroos and Leon Gorezka, leaving the front three of Saka, Sterling and Kane to both shut down Germany’s distribution from the back and cause those centre backs problems. There were some dismissive comments that matching a team up is “the easiest thing in football”, but that doesn’t really explain why we don’t see many teams doing it every week if it’s so straightforward.
The plan worked exactly as intended. England did a defensive job without getting sucked in by Germany. When France and Portugal attempted to defend against Die Mannschaft, they retreated to deeper and deeper positions, letting Low’s team really control the ball as they wanted (France were able to hang on, Portugal extremely were not). England stayed high up the pitch and prevented Germany the licence to play the game the way they wanted. There’s being defensive and there’s defending well. England did both.
Having done the job shutting Germany down for an hour, England still needed to actually win the game. The beloved cult hero, Grealish, was straight on for Saka. Grealish is a fantastic talent perfectly suited to this system, drifting just inside from the left and sucking players in before using his brilliant playmaking quality.
The moment came. England switched the play out to the left after a cute passing move. Shaw put in a low cross for a Sterling tap in. England were beating Germany in a knockout game. This isn’t supposed to happen.
This was Sterling’s moment. He’d scored all three of England’s goals in the tournament so far. The man who grew up within a stone’s throw of Wembley stadium, who has a tattoo of himself as a child wearing a number ten shirt looking over at the new ground as it was being built, was dominating Euro 2020 at Wembley England’s number ten. He was giving the best tournament performance from an England player I can remember.
There was a scare a few minutes later, with Muller missing a chance 1v1 against the ‘keeper. This felt like something of a gift from the gods in the moment. But upon reflection, that’s not a classic Muller chance. If you’re viewing the game from a German perspective, you don’t want Muller in that situation, because that’s never been his game. England were forcing Germany’s stars to play a slightly different way.
Then Grealish put in a delightful low cross for Kane to get his first goal of the Euros and England were on course for the quarter-finals. England had beaten Germany. England had changed the course of history.
This result was vindication for Southgate, yes, but the entire project he’d been involved with for the past decade. England were woefully exposed in 2010, not just on the pitch but institutionally. Germany were producing talented young players playing a modern and cohesive style of football. England had nothing beyond ageing stars and an ageing manager. By 2021, the situation had flipped. Germany couldn’t deal with this new England. The reforms of the 2010s had worked. Whatever happened from here, the national team was on the right track.
Next up was England’s only away trip of the tournament. Rome was the destination, and Ukraine the opponent. Travel restrictions meant UK residents were unable to attend the game, but English supporters living in the EU still managed to make up a sizeable number at the Stadio Olimpico. Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine were, with the greatest of respect, a team England should be beating, so Southgate reverted to the 4-2-3-1. Mount returned from his self-isolation to play as the ten, while Saka was unavailable, so Sancho got his chance. To say he deserved it would be a huge understatement. As I wrote:
“Since making the move to Germany, Sancho has been a phenomenon. In the past three seasons, he has 77 non-penalty goals and assists in the Bundesliga. To the shock of exactly no one, Robert Lewandowski has the most, with 99. But other than Lewandowski, no one has scored or assisted more often than Sancho. You think Thomas Muller is pretty good, right? He’d surely walk into the England team, yes? Well, Muller has 73 non-penalty goals and assists over the last three seasons. Sancho is outperforming him at club level.
Sancho is an imaginative footballer. He grew up in housing estates surrounded by concrete, where the way to play football was in tight spaces. ‘Cage football’ was the preferred form of the sport, forcing him to develop skills for tight spaces and hard surfaces. “That boy knows his way around the cages, I can tell you that much”, said Reiss Nelson, Arsenal winger and childhood friend of Sancho. While Sancho is the biggest star to emerge, other graduates of cage football in South London include Crystal Palace’s Ebere Eze as well Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Its influence on these players is not unlike that of futsal in Brazil, forcing players to learn close control and improvisation.”
Southgate didn’t trust Sancho as part of his underlying conservatism. He felt strongly that clean sheets were England’s best way to winning the tournament, and if that meant benching a talent as effervescent as Sancho, so be it. But Southgate still needed a big performance. He needed to show everyone England could steamroll teams, even if they generally didn’t.
He got it from minute one against Ukraine. Sterling made a classic run of his before playing through Kane for a clean finish. And then England were set. Shaw’s free-kick went straight to Maguire’s head and in. Shaw’s open play cross went straight to Kane’s head and in. Mount’s corner went straight to Henderson’s head and in. Dreamland. Domination. It’s all too easy. Semi-final at Wembley, here we come.
Southgate brought Saka back in for Sancho against Denmark. He clearly felt this format, with Saka as the more defensive winger, was the format he wanted regardless of what else happened. And why wouldn’t he stick with it? England hadn’t conceded a goal in the tournament. Five games at Euro 2020, five clean sheets. Again, this was not simply being defensive. Anyone can be defensive. This was defending well.
It took about 500 minutes, but England finally conceded a goal on the half-hour mark against Denmark. Mikkel Damsgaard hit a spectacular free-kick that couldn’t really be saved. Other than that, the Three Lions hadn’t really done too much wrong. If Denmark could just hold on until half-time, they’d find themselves in a very strong position. It didn’t quite work out like that. Saka breaks forward into space after a perfectly weighted pass from Kane, then he puts in a low cross to Sterling, who was about to tap it in before Simon Kjaer did the job for him. England managed to get things level before half-time while playing the better football and having the Wembley crowd on their side.
After that, England really took control of the tie. Denmark found themselves deeper and deeper as they just looked shattered. Southgate’s only change was Grealish for Saka, which made sense. Grealish’s role as a ball hog, sucking tired defenders towards him, would help create space against a team sitting deep. After spending what felt like the entire second half camped in the final third, England still couldn’t break through, and the game went to extra time.
England tried to get some more fresh legs on the pitch, with Henderson and Foden replacing Rice and Mount, but that didn’t really change the set-up of the side. The pattern of the game just wouldn’t shift, England were hammering it and hammering it, but Denmark were hanging on. Kasper Schmeichel had a very good game, but the Danes collectively did a good job of getting bodies in the way of shots and making it difficult that way.
By this point, you surely know how England went ahead. Sterling dribbled into the box and went down without a great deal of contact. VAR did not overturn it. Was it a penalty? Probably not. Is it anything we don’t see every week in football? No. Should Denmark feel hard done by with the result? Also no. They spent so much time defending in their own box, and arguably should have conceded a penalty when Kane went down in the second half. When you’re playing in this way, you run a high risk of conceding like this. England had completely dominated the game since half an hour in. The winner happened to come in this fashion, but it was definitely coming.
The national euphoria when England reached the first final since 1966 didn’t taste as sweet as I thought it would. To be clear, this has nothing to do with Sterling or any of the players. I’ve always believed there is nothing immoral about diving, and you won’t find a single thing I’ve written ever condemning any player for doing it. (Read this for my overall stance on the matter.) No, the issue was the way everyone jumped on the bandwagon.
At the beginning of the tournament, it felt like this side represented the best of the country against the more reactionary forces showing England at its worst. When politicians defended booing the players kneeling, it felt like these players were taking on that mentality. But the moment the team started winning, the worst parts of the country simply pretended their support was unequivocal. Right-wing politicians and journalists were queueing up to bask in “their” England team. Whatever success they achieved would be used to bolster the exact right-wing ideology they themselves had looked to oppose.
This is how power works in England. Having lost almost every scrap of land they had once conquered, their own island is the final place the English establishment can rule over without accusations of imperial crimes. If anyone achieves anything of note in England, these establishment figures can just take credit for it. And if they don’t like the context it’s presented in, they’ll just ignore that. Everyone, from the Prime Minister to journalists who identify as liberal defenders of centre-left ideas despite believing the moral fibre of society is threatened by transgender ideology funded by George Soros, to the cowards and traitors who know this is wrong but keep quiet to further their careers, will use you to whatever ends they choose the moment you become of value to them. Most countries in the world came into existence in opposition to some kind of establishment. England is the establishment. And a deeply rotten one all the way through, at that. And I don’t know if you can compete against that while wearing their colours anymore. The war is already lost, and they have won. In the long run, the only thing for anyone to do is pack their bags and make plans elsewhere.
England kind of erupted in anticipation of the final. It had a similar quality to 2018, but that tournament happened far away in Russia, like a beautiful dream. This one was here and it was visceral. Everyone just kind of accepts that the national team attracts a certain type of fan. These people exist throughout English football, but for some reason the England team brings them all out. That doesn’t really cover the extent to what happened on the day of the final.
Things started off fairly upbeat. A lot of people seemed to travel down to London from elsewhere in the country, most inevitably without tickets. The day just started too early and escalated further from there. As the journalist Jonathan Liew put it at 4.30pm that day, “The mood in London currently skirting that fine line between “greatest party of our lives” and “pouring a Peroni on a homeless person for banter””. England fans have always treated other countries this way. Why should we suddenly act shocked the first time they do it within our own borders? There’s no getting away from the kind of people who have made supporting the national team their identity. The people who shout “no surrender” during the national anthem, who are comfortable starting dangerous fights before the game even kicks off, who were happy to boo the players taking the knee under the pretences that “Black Lives Matter is a Marxist organisation” are a part of England we can’t avoid.
In the actual football, Southgate sprung a surprise. A bad one. He had decided to revert to the 3-4-3 system that nullified Germany so well. On the face of it, a more defensive approach against a strong Italy made sense.
It started exactly how Southgate must have drawn it up. Trippier finds himself free on the right, and puts in a superb cross for Shaw, his opposite wing-back, to finish at the back post. The system had given England extra width and they exploited it immediately. Two minutes into a European Championship final and England were ahead. But that was as sweet as it would get.
Without the ball, it’s not really obvious what this system was supposed to bring. It worked against Germany by going man for man across the pitch. This time, it just seemed like Southgate thought of the 3-4-3 as his “more defensive” formation. Italy play a 4-3-3 system with inverted wingers cutting in onto their stronger feet. The last thing you want in that situation is to get exposed 3v3, and that’s exactly how England played it. The other threat (at least in Leonardo Spinazzola’s absence) was through Italy’s technical central midfielders. This proved to be the key tactical facet of the first half. Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella found it easy to dominate the ball against Rice and Phillips. As soon as that happens, England are by nature hanging on a little, and the temptation is to drop deep. The good news is this mostly kept Italy away from England’s goal, but the longer they had it, the more England were likely to concede space and let them in.
The out ball was simply to hit it long to Kane, and it worked pretty well until Italy wised up. Kane was dominating Giorgio Chiellini pretty comfortably, so Roberto Mancini switched his centre backs to have Leonardo Bonucci pick up the Tottenham striker instead. It solved the problem instantly, and England were getting sucked in so easily. The game was crying out for an extra player in midfield. Henderson was sitting on the bench as the obvious solution. Bringing him on for one of the forwards at 1-0 would have been a defensive move that actually got England back up the pitch and solidified control. It was the obvious option to me, but it just never came. England had lost control of the game for an hour and Southgate still hadn’t made a single substitution.
Southgate missed his moment. After conceding so many chances, England made a mess at defending a corner, allowing Bonucci to fumble it into the back of the net. For Southgate to justify his reluctance to make a change, England had to hang on. That didn’t happen. He left it too late and the situation had changed completely. Now was the moment to be proactive, sense the state of the game, and seriously rethink.
He half-understood the brief here. His first change was Saka for Trippier. But this wasn’t really about adjusting to the game as he saw it. Picking Trippier over Saka to play a 3-4-3 was the one big call before the game, and he simply switched to his other pre-game plan. When Southgate changes things, they often feel like pre-planned moves. They rarely come across as reactive to what’s actually been happening in the game.
The next change was Henderson for Rice, but this was like for like. England had gone to the 4-2-3-1 of previous games. It wasn’t really making much of a difference. They were still getting dominated pretty handily in midfield, and as such got sucked pretty deep. In theory, they had another player to run in behind if they launched it, but we just didn’t see much of that. England hung on and hung on, getting pretty fortunate to hit 90 minutes at 1-1.
Southgate’s third sub, now into extra time, was Grealish for Mount. Again, this felt pre-planned. It wouldn’t help give England a foothold in midfield, as Grealish would push up higher. It was an attacking change, yes, but not one that entirely made sense. If Grealish needed to come on, which he did, it should have been for Sterling or Kane, but that would risk removing one of the two biggest stars.
England just kept hanging on and hanging on in extra time. Italy did to them what they had done to Denmark a few days earlier. After understanding the risks of dropping too deep against Germany, they did it over and over against Italy. After appearing to fix the mistakes of the Croatia defeat three years ago, they delivered an almost identical performance.
Southgate saved himself two substitutions for the penalty shootout: Sancho and Rashford. There are certainly arguments that either or both could have offered something earlier in the game. I think I’ve laid out pretty clearly that Southgate got his tactics wrong in this match. But this is the route he decided to go down.
England take their penalties in what felt like a very English order. Kane, the captain and most established penalty taker by far, goes first and scores. Italy meanwhile score their first but miss their second. Maguire, probably the second most obvious leader on the pitch (Henderson had been subbed off for Rashford), takes the second and smashes it in. Italy score their third. Rashford, who has taken penalties at club level (albeit not recently), steps up and misses the target. The score is level. Italy score again. Sancho is next to take. According to Transfermarkt, he’s taken three at senior club level and scored them all. But not this time. He does a solid job aiming for the bottom right corner, but Donnarumma gets there first. That means Jorginho, penalty specialist, has the chance to win it for Italy. He does his usual trick of waiting for the ‘keeper to move first, but Pickford reads it well and denies him. England aren’t quite done, but Saka must score to take the tie to sudden death. There isn’t any record of Saka taking a competitive senior level penalty before this. He strikes the ball at a comfortable height for Donnarumma and not close enough to the side netting. It’s a solid save for the ‘keeper. England have lost. Italy win Euro 2020.
People can argue that these five were the wrong takers. They can argue, as I would, that the players took them in the wrong order. Perhaps Kane should have taken the final penalty, as he is the most accustomed to doing so in high-pressure situations, whereas Saka should have gone somewhere in the middle. But it’s all hypothetical. We’ll never know the result had things been done differently. The nature of penalty shootouts is that you can get all the big decisions right and still lose, such is the level of random chance.
None of that should take anything away from Italy, who thoroughly deserved their win both on the night and throughout the tournament. They were bold and brave when England sat off. I can’t help but think back to the study Southgate commissioned on winning sides. If the same study were to be done now, what would it think of Italy? Would all its findings have to change in the face of a successful team that always looked to play positive football? No one outside of the FA has read the report, so we’ll never know.
The country sort of knew how to react to this situation. These players, in the eyes of the public, had nothing to be ashamed of. The three who missed their penalties had shown courage in stepping up and taking them. I remember seeing outside observers expecting the press to savage them, but it was never on the cards. These players are still useful to the establishment. There will come a day when they stop being useful, and the vultures will begin to circle. But we are not there yet.
That was the official narrative, at least. There are parts of England it can’t encompass.
“It’s quite hard right now for me”, the journalist Carl Anka explained the day after the final, “to have spent Friday, Saturday, thinking, you know, ‘this England team is quite special and the England flag isn’t terrifying’, to having to leave Wembley Stadium and having to text my friends and loved ones going “these are my movements, this is where I am. If something kicks off because some England fans decide they don’t particularly like black people today because of the penalty shoot out, then I’ll let you know’.
“The England flag is scary again”.
The Black players who had played key roles in taking England to the final had been praised in such utilitarian terms by the public. Their worth as human beings had been directly tied to what they could achieve for us. We saw this in the defecation of Rashford’s mural in Manchester. We saw it with the online abuse the players received. Crucially, none of this should be surprising, because we saw the fear from our Black friends and colleagues that the side of England they’ve been forced to experience was about to erupt. If you’re not on the receiving end of any particular type of bigotry, it’s easy to forget it exists. Those who live with this racism every day knew what England is and can be.
There was a strong desire to push back against this. The many notes and flags at Rashford’s mural showed us the people who had been inspired by these players to build a better England. If England can ever be saved, it will be by those young people inspired by Rashford and his cohorts.
But there was too often a desire to look at anyone but ourselves as the problem. The coverage overwhelmingly focused on social media abuse, seemingly because that’s an easier topic to talk about. Many were keen to point out that a lot of this abuse came from elsewhere in the world. As Twitter pointed out, the UK was “by far the largest country of origin” for abusive tweets towards the England players. It’s a question of flipping the fractions, since the UK was surely the largest country of origin for all tweets about the England team, so it’s hard to parse. But the question is irrelevant: there was certainly plenty of abuse within the country towards these players, even if it also happened elsewhere. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
The next line of attack was on social media anonymity. Again, this was about deflecting attention. It was about centring the abuse conversation on strange outsiders rather than those people who walk among us and would happily shout abuse at someone on the street in broad daylight. It was about holding Silicon Valley tech companies accountable instead of anyone with any power in this country. It was about avoiding having the necessary conversations while making everyone feel like something was being done.
England, the football team, came close but didn’t quite have enough to get the job done. Southgate’s conservatism served him well to a point, but he lacked the requisite flexibility to put his foot on the accelerator when he needed to. This is a young team that I expect will continue to improve, and there will be more opportunities, but winning a major tournament is a hard thing to do. I hope it will happen. I think there’s a very good chance the younger players in this squad retire with an international title to their name.
I just don’t know how England, the country, will respond, if it happens or if it doesn’t.