“Here we go again. Why do we put ourselves through it?”
The script so often feels predetermined in England tournament openers. It’s a script we’ve seen play out so many times. England come out from the blocks fast, create a succession of clear early chances and fail to capitalise. Their opponents, usually an inferior and defensively minded side, gradually ease into the game and start to tighten up just as England’s explosive start begins to catch up with them. The match gets away from the Three Lions, and almost certainly ends 1-1.
England’s record in tournament openers makes for depressing reading. In European Championships specifically, it is truly abysmal. As Gareth Southgate’s young and spirited side head into their Euro 2020 opener against Croatia today, they do so in the knowledge that Englands of the past have failed to win a single opening match at the Euros in nine attempts, drawing five and losing four. That torrid record includes winnable fixtures against the Republic of Ireland, Switzerland, and in 2016 and entirely beatable Russia who stole a draw only in stoppage-time.Embed from Getty Images
Quite how much of a boost winning the first group game can give cannot be understated. From the 2010 World Cup to Euro 2016, England failed to win a single tournament opener. They subsequently crashed out at the second round, quarter-finals, group stage, and second round once more. Gareth Southgate has said the most important moment of his side’s momentous semi-final run in Russia was not his personal penalty redemption in knocking out Colombia but instead the stoppage-time winner that secured all three points against Tunisia in their opening game.
The teams still involved in the final week of this Euros are likely to have grown in confidence and unity and momentum after winning their opening game. To lay down a marker and to build from there. It is expected of the best sides. It is therefore expected of England.
And the expectation will only grow if they take the lead against their World Cup conquerors this afternoon. But we’ve been here before with England… many times. This will be Wembley’s first chance to impress at a major tournament since Euro 96 on home soil. Since that fateful summer of Sheringham and Shearer and Phil Foden lookalikes scoring scorchers and Scotland, England have taken the lead in an incredible ten of their 11 tournament openers. They’ve come away with victories from a meagre three of them. So holding on is the problem.Embed from Getty Images
But while Southgate may have cracked winning an opener, Croatia are no Tunisia. They were of course the side who brought England’s Russian run to an end on a sweaty night in the Luzhniki Stadium. Their midfield is one of the tournament’s strongest, as Gareth Southgate told EnglandFootball.org in the lead-up to this clash.
And yet they are seen by many as an ageing team. That may have helped them in 2018 when they were able to count on experience and nous to get through three knockout rounds, but their form in the following three years has been shaky at best. Luka Modrić’s days in the big time are numbered, at age 35, and their golden generation’s lifespan may well already be over.
This bodes well for England, who by contrast have improved their squad depth and quality since their last tournament showing. But we’ve been here before. It never seems to matter what sort of form or shape England are in when they grace the turf for their first match of a major competition. Their opponents’ form seems to go out the window too.Embed from Getty Images
The nerves will settle a little if England can grab the game’s first goal. But, again, we’ve been here before (see Euro 96, 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012, World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016). Even if they hit a second unanswered goal, the contest will by no means be over (see Euro 2000). England will know that history is against them tomorrow. Euro openers have tended to be forgone conclusions for the Three Lions. But all hope is not lost.
Southgate repeatedly told his players throughout the 2018 World Cup to “write your own narrative.” They kept their side of the bargain. Now he finds himself sending the same messages to better players. England might not have history on their side, but they have the future.