Football can be a cruel game. In front of a packed Wembley full of hope and optimism, England lost to Italy 2-3 on penalties after the game ended 1-1 in 120 minutes.
It was a deja vu for English fans, as Euro 2020 will go in the history books alongside 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012 in the long list of major tournaments that England exited via a penalty shootout.
England has just two out of nine wins in major tournament shootouts. At 22 per cent, this is the worst ratio of any European country to have been involved in three or more. The result means that England’s desperate pursuit of winning their first major trophy since 1966 and bringing football ‘home’ will have to go longer.
Looking back at the tournament as a whole and at how the final played out, there’s no doubt that Italy and Roberto Mancini are worthy champions. They showed a lot of heart and determination and above all were exciting to watch. One can only admire the work that Mancini has done to build this squad since he took over in 2018 after the disaster of not making it to the Russia World Cup. He transformed the team from an ailing giant to European champions in less than three years.
Now back to the game. Southgate made one change to the starting line-up that faced Denmark in the semi-final. He brought on Kieran Trippier for Bukayo Saka and reverted to a conservative 3-4-2-1 as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 he used in the previous match. Mancini named an unchanged team to the one that beat Spain in the semi-final and went with the 4-3-3 that he used throughout the tournament.
It all looked to be going well for England as they came flying out of the blocks, pushed on by a wild Wembley atmosphere. Southgate’s questionable tactical decision by changing to a back three paid off right away as Trippier collected the ball on the right wing, crossed to the back post to find his fellow wing-back Luke Shaw, who volleyed it home to give England the lead.
Italy looked rattled and England dominated the first 30 minutes with total control. They were playing with high intensity, pressing high and not giving Italy any time on the ball. Southgate’s game plan looked to be on point as Kalvin Phillips was chasing Marco Verratti everywhere, Mason Mount was on Jorginho, and the combination of Trippier and Kyle Walker on the right proved to be too strong for Lorenzo Insigne, who could not influence the game. All Italy’s creative forces were effectively shut down, preventing them from creating any chances.
However, England were not creating much themselves and, despite being dominant early on, failed to capitalise. Slowly but surely momentum began to shift. Italy began to find their rhythm, with Verratti and Jorginho pulling the strings. They were able to play through the press and retained the majority of possession but still couldn’t create big chances.
All England were doing well at the beginning started to disappear. Their tempo was slower and they did not press with the same intensity, which allowed Italy to force their style of play. The only thing that remained was that England were far too negative on the ball and barely threatened Gianluigi Donnarumma’s goal.
It is telling that up until that point England’s standout players were the two defensive midfielders, Phillips and Declan Rice, along with left back Shaw. Harry Kane and Mount were bright in the early stages but slowly faded and had very little impact on the game. England were struggling in attack, and it was quite obvious that tactical and personnel changes needed to happen.
Italy came out stronger in the second half as Mancini made a couple of substitutions and tweaks that put his team in control. They started to play with real intent while England remained negative, defended deeper and looked more concerned about protecting the lead rather than going for the kill.
When your game plan after an early lead is to sit deep, invite pressure, concede possession and have little to no chances whatsoever, more often than not you end up conceding no matter how well you defend. In the 67th minute the inevitable finally happened when a loose corner kick found its way to Leonardo Bonucci to score from close range.
Southgate finally decided to use his star-studded bench. He replaced Trippier for Saka and changed the formation to 4-2-3-1 to have an extra attacking player. Four minutes later he replaced Rice – who had been one of the best players on the pitch and had arguably his best performance to date in an England shirt – with Jordan Henderson who, despite being a great leader, hasn’t really been in good form for months and missed the majority of Liverpool’s matches last season due to injury.
These substitutions didn’t change much in the game. Italy remained the better team, had over 60 per cent of the possession and had the better chances. Italy’s midfield was playing with relative ease and Federico Chiesa was a constant threat after Mancini moved him to the left wing. England couldn’t thread a few passes together and mostly played long balls.
The referee blows the final whistle. The game goes to extra time.
Nothing much changed for either team. Southgate waited until the 99th minute to get Jack Grealish on for Mount, who didn’t have any impact on the game all second half. It then became clear that Southgate had nothing but penalties on his mind, as he introduced Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, both prolific penalty takers, with one minute left on the clock.
After a nervy penalty shootout filled with all the drama a neutral football fan can ask for, Italy edged England 3-2 after Rashford, Sancho and Saka missed the last three spot kicks for England. Italy’s players and fans erupted in celebration while England’s players burst into tears.
Wembley was in shock. Football didn’t come home.
It was another sad chapter added to England’s agonising football history, and the party that English fans have been preparing for 55 years was over.
In my opinion, all the blame for this loss lies with Gareth Southgate. Since the last World Cup and in the lead up to this tournament, Southgate’s ability to get the best out of this extremely talented generation of players has been questioned. He has often been labelled as ‘conservative’ or ‘not bold’. This tournament in parts and especially that final performance epitomised that.
England did start well and got a dream getaway that put them in control of their own destiny. But once Italy weathered the storm and Mancini’s tweaks allowed his team to regain control, it was all one way. A reaction was very much needed from England.
I am no body-language expert, but Southgate on the touchline seemed passive and reluctant to make changes despite the variety of quality players on his bench. When you look at the bench and you see players like Grealish, Rashford, Sancho, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Saka, that is one scary bench that can tip any game in your favour.
He didn’t make any changes until they conceded, and when he did, his choices were baffling. Saka, 19 years old, has had a more than decent tournament, but the main reason he starts is that he’s a winger who tracks back and defends well.
Henderson for Rice was even more baffling given how good Rice was and that Henderson wouldn’t really offer anything different as he’s a defensive-minded player.
England needed more than that in the second half. They needed creators in the mould of Grealish or Foden to create something for Kane and Raheem Sterling. The alternative is to use fast tricky runners on the wings, such as Rashford and Sancho, to allow Kane to drop deeper and create space.
Sterling, one of the players of the tournament, was visibly tired and couldn’t make a difference. Southgate ignored that and didn’t consider changing him for someone fresh who could win the game for him.
If you want to get Sancho and Rashford on for penalties, why not get them in earlier during extra time and give them the chance to get the feel of the game and maybe produce a game-winning moment?
He used both sparingly throughout the tournament and didn’t trust them with many minutes on the pitch. To then bring them on with one minute to go just for penalties is very poor man-management.
It’s no coincidence that both of them missed their penalties. Both players are prolific penalty takers for their clubs. Rashford has scored 15 out of 17 in his career, while Sancho has scored ten out of 11. But with just one minute on the pitch they barely had a chance to get in the game and be prepared mentally, as both players touched the ball only twice before the match was over.
He then allowed a 19-year-old Saka, who had never taken a penalty in his senior career, to take the all-important fifth shot. Even if he smashes them in training, you can’t put him in that position. Why not let Saka take the first and let your captain and most prolific goal scorer, Kane, take the fifth?
Foden, who was tipped by many to have a great tournament after his breakout season with Manchester City, was an unused substitute in the final. While Bellingham, who at 17 is a starter for Borussia Dortmund, was limited to a ten-minute substitute appearance in a group stage match. Bellingham is a combative box-to-box central midfielder who could have offered something different from what Phillips and Rice had to offer.
On the other hand, big credit to Mancini, who showed his class throughout the tournament. He managed his squad in an impressive fashion. Despite having an inferior team in terms of depth and quality, he used every ounce of talent at his disposal to great effect.
During the final Mancini wasn’t afraid to take off his best players. He took off Insigne, Verratti, Ciro Immobile and Chiesa (due to injury), and his team remained superior. Their success relied on the system rather than specific players.
Mancini deserves all the plaudits coming his way. He is a proven manager who coached at the top level of club football. His resume is impressive, with league and cup wins to his name in Italy, England and Turkey. Let’s not forget that he is the last man to beat Sir Alex Ferguson to a league title.
He might have been underrated at times, but this Euro win showed what a great manager he is.
This final was a tale of two managers. One who is established and knows exactly what he’s doing and another who still has a lot to improve on and a lot to prove.
Southgate deserves credit in assembling this squad, and he has done lots of good things during his tenure. He led England to a World Cup semi-final followed by a Euro final, which is better than any other England manager in recent history. There’s no doubt that the players listen to him and play for him. However, his in-game management and conservative approach are where the question marks remain.
The foundations are there for England to build a team that can win the World Cup in Qatar next year. It all now depends on the man charged with putting the pieces together. Since his appointment in 2016, Southgate has made progress and took the team to a new level. Nevertheless, his own approach is threatening to hold this team back. He has to be braver and take more risks, otherwise England’s endless cycle of failure at the biggest stage will continue.