The DJ was a Welshman. England’s goalkeeping coach, the former Manchester City and Wales goalkeeper Martyn ‘Marge’ Margetson, played two-and-a-half hours of ‘80s music as Gareth Southgate, Steve Holland and England’s coaching staff enjoyed a rare moment to celebrate a first knockout win over Germany since 1966. COVID-19 precautions meant England’s staff and players had to travel in separate coaches back to St George’s Park. The staff made the most of it.
But the final second-round tie between Sweden and Ukraine — the winner of which would face England next — was still on in the background. When you’re in that deep, the mind rarely deviates too far from the primary objective. In this instance, that priority is ending the years of hurt. 55 years and counting. That of all things is a full-time job for Southgate and his staff.
They knew that once the coaches had pulled up by the plush entrance at SGP at midnight, the fun and games would have to stop. Southgate has cultivated a relaxed atmosphere at England’s training base in Burton upon Trent, yet the late-night return of the players and their entourage signalled anything but. A visit to Rome for the quarter-final offers the Three Lions a different sort of challenge to their first four matches. So does facing Ukraine, who England haven’t played since 2013 under Roy Hodgson.Embed from Getty Images
The Ukraine fixture will be markedly different to the Germany match. If the Germans were a side of world-renowned individuals whose effectiveness as a team in recent years has been waning little by little, Andriy Shevchenko’s side are the polar opposite. As they soaked up the moment following Artem Dovbyk’s thumping winner that knocked out the Swedes in stoppage-time of extra-time, their team unity was palpable. Yet so was their utter surprise.
England must be wary of their next opponents, captained by Manchester City’s versatile 24-year-old Oleksandr Zinchenko. But when they line up against Ukraine at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday evening, England will be fully aware that their opponents did not expect to be here. They progressed through the group stage as the worst of the best-ranked third-place sides (a statement so confusing that it serves as evidence that the current European Championships format is barely fit for purpose).
They lost their first match to the Netherlands — who just crashed out to the Czech Republic — but showed immense resilience to climb back from 2-0 down to get back to 2-2 in that game. They then beat tournament newbies North Macedonia 2-1, before falling to Austria by a single goal. Tournaments are about peaking at the right time, and thanks in part to a horror tackle from Marcus Danielson for which the Swedish defender was rightly sent down the tunnel, Shevchenko’s team made their chances count and avoided a penalty shootout by a matter of seconds thanks to Dovbyk’s first international goal.Embed from Getty Images
Ukraine’s all-time leading goalscorer Shevchenko is yet to name an unchanged line-up for consecutive games at Euro 2020. Throughout the group-stage, the Eastern Europeans set up as a 4-3-3 unit with just one holding midfielder. Against the Netherlands — a major force in international football whether they’re now out or not — Ukraine were rather picked apart on the counterattack. Memphis Depay had an early chance in the first half and then Georginio Wijnaldum broke the deadlock. Both openings arose due to Ukraine having committed too many bodies forward, and defended much too narrowly when the Dutch came at them.
North Macedonia and Austria weren’t able to take full advantage of these gaping holes when they played the Ukrainians, and they had switched the system to 3-5-2 by the time Sweden had the chance to capitalise in the round of 16. With the pace and guile of players like Raheem Sterling and (if they get on the pitch) Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford or Jadon Sancho, such open expanses of the pitch are something England would look to exploit on Saturday.
But the 3-5-2 seemed to work for Ukraine. Zinchenko has spent much of his international career as a playmaker in attacking midfield, yet he was the match’s most regular and efficient crosser of the ball when played as a left-wing-back against Sweden. Years spent as an auxiliary left-sided player for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City no doubt helped. Oleksandr Karavaev was just as effective from the right.Embed from Getty Images
If Shevchenko has any sense — and he probably does — he’ll stick with the 3-5-2 that sunk the Scandinavians and just ask Zinchenko and Karavaev to be a little more conservative. If Karavaev in particular plays as extraordinarily high as he did against Sweden, once past him England’s wing-back and wide forward will have a field day. To afford the likes of Sterling that much uninhabited green space is footballing suicide, even without the buoyant Wembley crowd urging him on.
England must work on their defensive solidity from set-pieces, as Ukraine have scored twice already from them in this tournament. They must also stop crosses into the box, which would be Ukraine’s main threat if they stuck with a formation that incorporates wing-backs.
But England must also focus on themselves. They are being tipped as potential winners of this tournament for a reason. Ukraine pose less of a threat than Germany, and so using Luke Shaw and, say, Kyle Walker as traditional full-backs should be enough to defend against Ukraine’s threat on the flanks. There is also the matter of possession, which England will want to dominate. The 4-2-3-1 used against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic will most likely return in order to bring a bit more control into England’s play.Embed from Getty Images
Mason Mount had to sit out of the last two games due to COVID-19 precautions. He is likely to slot back into the No 10 role, while Phil Foden will probably replace Bukayo Saka as Raheem Sterling’s wide-forward partner. And don’t be surprised to see either Jude Bellingham or Jordan Henderson replace one of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice in the interest of fitness.
If England retain their defensive astuteness and continue to up the ante in attack, they will have more than enough to beat Ukraine and reach a semi-final. There is a sense that England is possibly getting a little ahead of itself as it prepares for this fixture and whispers confidently about being on the easier side of the draw. But that’s England the country, not England the football team. The players certainly won’t be getting ahead of themselves. And Gareth Southgate’s personal aversion to English brashness will be at the heart of that.