“It’s the unknown territory,” says John Stones. The ever-present Three Lions centre-back names this as the most exciting aspect of being in a Euros final, as he speaks to EnglandFootball.org in the lead-up to the game.
“It’s never been done before. Being part of that is something special and something I’m proud of. We’ve come so far as a team, made so many big steps and made a lot of history. Sunday’s another chance for us to do that, and that’s something that motivates me, excites me, and really pushes me on. It’s about being as prepared as we can be, and personally as prepared as I can be. [I’ll] give everything for my teammates, for the shirt, for the nation, and getting over the line at the end of the day.
“We’re all here for one reason, and that’s to try and win the Euros on Sunday. We’ve given ourselves that opportunity. All the dedication, all the things we’ve sacrificed to get us where we are right now, you could say everything’s come together at the right time.”
But you could be forgiven for thinking — in the days since England lost the final — that actually everything ended up falling apart… at just the wrong time.Embed from Getty Images
This was a glorious chance for England to finally complete the seemingly Sisyphean task of ending the years of hurt. The home advantage, the high proportion of English fans inside Wembley, and the fact England had actually negotiated a semi-final for once, serve as just three reasons why the post-mortem will perhaps come across as cruel to Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland. But context matters. Context agrees: this really was a glorious chance to rewrite history.
Instead, some will be tempted to argue it was a perfectly inappropriate time for a number of England curses of old to come slithering back. England were yet again shown up in a tournament for lacking the sort of wily, tempo-setting midfielders that their opponents the Italians always seem to have in their ranks. Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi’s time has come and gone. But in their place, Marco Verratti, Nicolò Barella and Chelsea’s Jorginho — tipped for the Ballon d’Or — had the bite and battle of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips. Crucially, the Italian trio were also near faultless in their decision-making, and never rushed with the ball at their feet. That was the difference.
England have been here before. If it wasn’t Pirlo winning matches against Roy Hodgson’s England seemingly on his own, or Zinedine Zidane turning heads and turning the match on its head against Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men at Euro 2004, it was Luka Modrić inspiring Croatia to the 2018 World Cup semi-final win over Southgate’s side. That night, Modrić produced the individual performance that cemented, more than any other, his one and only Ballon d’Or triumph.Embed from Getty Images
The problems for England in the Euro 2020 final extended further than what they lacked in personnel — something they cannot rectify immediately. Tactical questions can also be asked. Should England have sat back quite so much, quite so early on? You’d be hard-pressed to defend the approach. Defending from the front with Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount, England were exceptional in all areas for the first 40 minutes of the final on Sunday. Italy looked scrambled for ideas, and managed few passes of any note, thanks to England’s textbook ability to block off their passing lanes.
But as the first half drew to a close, Roberto Mancini’s men just started to edge closer to England, who, in turn, retreated ever so slightly. We weren’t to know it, but that was to set the tone for the whole of the second half. England lost on penalties after extra-time eventually. But while the match therefore wasn’t lost in the second half, England’s likelihood of being crowned champions dramatically decreased in that period. They looked like classic, idealess England as they sat back more and more, inviting pressure. Invited more pressure than they needed to. Italy kept coming forward, kept threatening, and eventually got their equaliser. Once reactionary England changes were made and 3-4-3 was switched to 4-2-3-1, the problems changed, but they weren’t alleviated.
England no longer sat quite so deep. However, they now lost their ability to turnover possession, because it was Rice who had made way — the team’s best tackler. When Phillips or Rice’s replacement Jordan Henderson nicked the ball once in a blue moon, they were quickly smothered by Italy’s stalking midfielders. England never had the ball for long, and you can’t win a game like that. All you can do is hold on. After a certain point in extra-time, that’s exactly what happened. Southgate decided his team’s organised and well-drilled approach to penalties would present the best chance of victory.Embed from Getty Images
There is an argument that for all this tactical analysis, England were actually just a bit unlucky in a few ways during the game. First, Rice would have likely stayed on had he not picked up a knock. He has emerged as one of the side’s key men in the past two years. Henderson on for Phillips would have kept England’s balance in midfield. Instead, the clear holding player had to make way for another No 8. In a game of such magnitude, and of such tight margins, that makes a difference.
Similarly, the introduction just after the hour mark of Bukayo Saka made sense. On came England’s most naturally direct winger besides Sterling who was already on the pitch. For whatever reason — nerves probably (understandable) — it just didn’t work. Saka struggled to make the most of his cameo and never quite got the chance to run at Emerson or Giorgio Chiellini. And once England had smartly brought on two of their best penalty-takers in Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, again, it wasn’t to be. They both failed to find the net in the shootout. Out of luck.Embed from Getty Images
So bad fortune was partly to blame. But England were much too early to sit back. Clearly they would have left themselves vulnerable to being eaten alive on the counterattack had they continued to attack come what may. Introducing: the middle ground. Southgate and Holland knew they had no Jorginho to pull the strings in the middle of the park. But they should have trusted their midfielders and attackers that little bit more to retain the ball and keep posing Italy problems. On and off the ball, perhaps England could then have done a better job at keeping the Italians in the precise stretches of grass that, at 1-0 down, they really didn’t want to be.
Instead, there were so few options when park-the-bus England won the ball that a risky, lazy first-time pass was played, misplaced, and just like that the ball was back with Italy — growing in confidence all the time. At the most tactically demanding moment of their entire campaign, England abandoned the deliberative style of play and confidence in possession that had so satisfyingly limited all their previous opponents’ threats. They simply allowed themselves to be overrun. In the Wembley mizzle, England were carefully picked apart, simple pass by simple pass.