Assessing why and how England came up agonisingly short in the Euro 2020 final and the questions for Gareth Southgate to ponder before the World Cup...
Monday 12 July 2021 15:10, UK
Tactical flexibility was at the heart of England's success at Euro 2020. Gareth Southgate's ability to mould and shape his side into a system which would nullify an opponent's strengths and expose their weaknesses has seen England flick between back threes and back fours, and flex the shape and type of midfield and attack further up the pitch.
It appeared the manager had played another masterstroke 30 minutes into the final, with England's surprise wing-back set-up allowing them to pull Italy across the pitch in possession and have enough men back to block out any incision from the Italian attackers at the other end. Luke Shaw's goal perfectly highlighted how England had caught their opponents off guard and stretched them.
But the danger with a back three is that under pressure it can become a back five and that's what happened to England. As the half wore on and Italy seized control of possession, they began to wear down their opponents. England's wing-backs, who had been so devastating early on, were pinned back, while Italy's midfield were allowed to dictate the play in front of the hosts' deep-lying defence. It was backs-to-the-walls stuff for long periods for England.
That approach asked for trouble - and found it when yet another heroic intervention from Harry Maguire led to a corner which Leonardo Bonucci bundled in.
At that point, Southgate sent on Bukayo Saka and switched to a 4-3-3. England were almost immediately improved. But they'd been passive for too long. Perhaps the early success of the wing-backs delayed Southgate's decision but it was only when England got that extra man in the middle of the park and put the pace of Saka up against the likes of Giorgio Chiellini that they re-found a proper foothold in the match.
England's wing-back system worked wonderfully for half an hour. It was perhaps the best half-an-hour performance of Southgate's tenure. But Italy quickly adapted - and England were slow to respond.
It was a remarkable stat unearthed by Opta in the wake of the Euro 2020 final: 'Harry Kane didn't attempt a shot or create a chance for only the second time in his 61 games for England, with the other coming in a 29-minute substitute appearance against Switzerland in 2018.'
Half of any reflection on that incredible statistic should of course go to the Italy defence, led by stalwarts Chiellini and Bonucci. But there's also no getting away from the other side of the same coin: when England needed their captain the most, he wasn't there. But was that really Kane's fault?
Any striker thrives on service and Kane received none. Any centre-forward needs support and Kane barely had any. And any centre-forward needs to play as just that…and for most of the game, Kane was anything but an out-and-out centre-forward.
Kane's drift deep was surely by design and, in fairness, England's goal hinged on Kane dropping into midfield and linking up the play. But the longer the game went on, the more isolated Kane became and the more peripheral he drifted. If England's game-plan was to expose a perceived weakness of Italy on the flanks then the best that can be said of their game plan is that it worked for two minutes out of 120. For their rest, their talisman was, as a consequence of their own design, a passenger.
Nor, albeit with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, did England's forward-line selection work.
Raheem Sterling's summer has been built around sudden bursts of energy and acceleration. But, understandably in his seventh match of the tournament, he looked weary and devoid of the sharpness which had defined his play to here.
And then there was Mason Mount, all at sea on the left of England's attack and utterly unable to make any impression on proceedings, let alone offer meaningful support for Kane. Given a second bite at an impact when England changed to a 4-3-3, Mount was fortunate to have been on the pitch past the hour mark. Instead, he was given until the 99th minute before Southgate belatedly acknowledged it wasn't Mount's night.
Like Saka, like Sancho, and like Rashford, Mount will come again. But there is an uneasy reflection to this tournament that started with Phil Foden as the youngster of choice and Jack Grealish as the public's favourite, that it's not quite clear where England are going with their next generation of attackers.
One of the positives from England's Euro 2020 campaign has been the progression. A strong defence has emerged with excitement and creativity going forward - something England fans have been crying out for. England are no longer set in a rigid structure, and can change their formation around mid-game to suit the opponent and the situation. More importantly, they can do it and win on the biggest stages.
It was different from what we had seen at the World Cup three years ago. England had progressed a step further by reaching the final and Southgate had cultivated and nurtured a truly special group of players. And for the first half an hour of the final, when England were on the front foot, it looked they would go all the way and clinch a first major trophy for the men's side since 1966.
But soon, the old England, the England that stumbled in 2018, started to creep back in. Southgate's side sat deep from pretty much the 30-minute mark onwards. Initially, it was a case of making it to half-time and regrouping, but things only got tougher.
England invited Italy onto them, sitting back and as Roberto Mancini made pro-active decisions with substitutions, their confidence only grew. England had a minor spell towards the end of the extra time period where they started to press after the introduction of Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka, but it was never going to be enough.
For England fans, it was a tragic sense of déjà vu - and not just because there was another penalty shootout defeat. The same tactics were eerily similar to the World Cup semi-final against Croatia.
An early lead to defend, sitting too deep and the opposition using that to grow in confidence. Southgate used a back three then too, converting to a back five out of possession, and some wondered before Sunday's game if it would be a little too defensive. There were positives and negatives on that front.
Substitutions too were arguably used too cautiously as well. Mancini wasted no time in making changes after the break. Southgate's first came nearly 20 minutes later.
While England had wonderful tournaments in both years, the same sticking points still seem to be hindering the real progress of lifting a trophy. There's more for Southgate to work on ahead of the World Cup in 18 months' time.
When England's rather unexpected run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup was brought to a halt by Croatia, the sense of disappointment was palpable also but countered by the optimism Gareth Southgate managed to conjure throughout that heady summer in Russia.
Three years on, and a nation that was gripped with football fever like never before ahead of kick-off is left contemplating an all too familiar sense of anguish. For football isn't coming home, it's going to Rome.
As was the case in Moscow, England struck early, even earlier in fact, as Luke Shaw wrote his name into the history books. His sumptuous half-volley cannoned in off the post with barely two minutes on the clock as he scored the fastest goal in a European Championship final.
Shaw was the beneficiary of Southgate's bold pre-match tactical switch, as England's wing-backs tormented Italy in the wide areas. The only criticism of England's rumbustious start, however, was that no one was able to follow in the Manchester United defender's footsteps.
Italy took their time to get their heads around England's formation, but when they did, they steadily hauled the Three Lions back within reach. Leonardo Bonucci got the all-important equaliser midway through the second half, and the expectation that clearly weighed so heavy on England shoulders transferred into anxiety.
A reluctance to really push on for that winner, for Southgate to turn to his bench sooner, left England at the mercy of their old nemesis - the penalty shootout - and in the cauldron of an expectant Wembley Stadium, the pressure told.
England's historic campaign at Euro 2020 will undoubtedly be remembered as one of progression and promise, but that final, biggest step of all, remains so agonisingly out of reach.
It was penalty shootout heartbreak again for England and Gareth Southgate in a crushing Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy.
Alice Piper is joined by Pete Smith and Gerard Brand to reflect on a dramatic Euro 2020 final, with England unable to mark their progress with the silverware.