When the final game of Euro 2020 gets underway at 8pm on Sunday, England will be at home, but when the full-time whistle blows will football be there too?
From Fabio Capello’s disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign to Roy Hodgson’s demise against Iceland in 2016, underwhelming performances and falling short has long been a key component of the English footballing DNA. The Euro 2020 final however, provides an opportunity for the English to extinguish the pain of the past. It represents the culmination of years of underage development and success behind the scenes. It offers them the chance to put an end to their 55-year wait for major international success.
All things considered; this mouth-watering final is being contested by the two rightful challengers. This is a view accepted by England manager Gareth Southgate who told Sky Sports: “I think, without doubt, the two best teams in the tournament have made the final, and it’s now whoever performs well on the day.”
Throughout Euro 2020 the Three Lions and the Azzurri have dealt with all the challenges that they have met and have overcome the majority of them with flying colours. England go into the competition’s finale as marginal bookies’ favourites however, history tells us that Roberto Mancini’s men are more than capable of spoiling the English party. In the 27 clashes between the two sides, Italy have come out on top on 11 occasions, with the English claiming eight wins of their own. The Azzurri will have every confidence in their chances of taking home the cup, having gone unbeaten in their last 33 matches.
For a tournament that has been played across 11 countries, it has to a certain extent still felt like a ‘home’ tournament for England as they have greatly benefited from playing almost all of their games at Wembley Stadium. This gargantuan slice of luck will act as a significant advantage for the Three Lions on Sunday as Southgate’s men will look to absorb the support of the crowd and transform it into momentum.
Wembley Stadium is to remain at 75 per cent capacity for the final, which means that we can once again expect to hear rip-roaring renditions of songs such as “God Save the Queen”, “Sweet Caroline” and “Whole Again”. Where it was once required for something as monumental as a last-minute David Beckham free kick to “raise the roof”, the atmosphere amongst the English fans can now be utterly transformed by something as simple as the fourth official raising the electronic number board. A sighting of a green number 7 or 20, signalling the impending arrival of either cult hero Jack Grealish or the ‘Gazza of this generation’, Phil Foden, is now enough to send England supporters into delirium.
It would be quite difficult for Gareth Southgate to envision a group of exciting attacking players who would be more suitable for the task of carrying out the iconic tactical instructions laid out by English rock band New Order – “You’ve got to hold and give but do it at the right time”, than the likes of Mason Mount, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho. Football fans and pundits alike can often lean too heavily on statistics to suit a particular agenda, but on this occasion the stats boasted by England’s creative midfield players must be accepted and appreciated. The 2020-21 season witnessed Sancho, Grealish, Foden and Mount reach a combined 194 chances created from open play in league football, with the four creators also contributing 30 league goals between them. Mount created more chances than any of his English counterparts in Europe’s top five leagues this season, whilst only Bruno Fernandes created more chances from open play than Grealish during the recently concluded Premier League season. In the five major European leagues, only Lionel Messi and Thomas Muller have bested Sancho with respect to goals assisted since the commencement of the 2018-19 campaign.
One of Southgate’s biggest managerial strengths is his bravery and willingness to stick his neck on the line. The former Middlesbrough man refuses to follow the same treacherous path as previous England managers. Rather than shoehorning the likes of Foden, Grealish and Mount into the one starting eleven to the detriment of the balance of the team, the England boss instead carefully crafts his side in a way that not only allows England to start with an incredibly well built side, but fascinatingly, allows them to finish the closing stages of games with what is considered by many as an even stronger outfit. Southgate’s boldness was encapsulated by his decision to haul off Grealish right after England took the lead in extra time against Denmark, despite the fact that the Aston Villa skipper had only entered the fray in the 69th minute. The real sense of comradery among the England squad was highlighted through Grealish’s acceptance of Southgate’s courageous call, as it was a decision made not to embarrass the England No.7, but instead to shore up the defence via the entrance of Kieran Trippier.
Southgate’s ability to switch up his system and introduce players who perfectly fit it could stand to England on Sunday, and create a whole host of problems for the Azzurri. Despite the aforementioned statistics enjoyed by the likes of Sancho, Foden and Grealish, Southgate has consistently put his faith in the likes of Sterling and Saka, an audacious call which has undeniably paid off. The England manager has also faced criticism for deploying two defensive-minded midfielders in front of his defence. Is it an uninspiring conservative approach? Yes. Is it resulting in the benching of some of world football’s most exciting prospects? Yes. But is it working? Absolutely.
Key to Southgate’s system is his captain and debatably the greatest striker on the planet, Harry Kane. Kane’s sluggish start to the Euro 2020 campaign led to a vocal minority of England fans questioning if the 27-year-old’s starting spot should be under threat. However, this slow start has been a recurring theme of the England captain’s club career and as always, once the goals start coming for Kane they don’t stop. England’s talisman has now bagged four goals in his last three games and crucially appears to be back to his very best ahead of the Italy showdown. A goal in Sunday’s tournament finale would see the Tottenham Hotspur skipper surpass Gary Lineker as England’s most prolific major international tournament goalscorer of all time, with the pair currently tied on 10 goals each.
An ominous omen that rears its ugly head in regard to Kane’s hopes of lifting the Henri Delaunay Trophy is his abysmal track record when it comes to cup finals. Kane’s Spurs have lost out in two EFL Cup finals at Wembley Stadium, whilst also coming up short in their sole Champions League final appearance in 2019. It should be taken into account that the North London club went into all three of these finals as underdogs, and that critically, their star man Kane was not at peak fitness on two of the three occasions. Despite this, if England fail to hit the ground running in Sunday’s final and find themselves under the cosh thanks to the likes of Nicolo Barella, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile, they will be reassured by the fact that Kane is capable of thriving in a side that is playing below par. In a season that saw Tottenham complete their worst league campaign in over a decade, as they succumbed to a seventh-place finish, the England captain still managed to pick up the Premier League Golden Boot; his third in the last six seasons.
England’s exceptional defensive record during the group stages and the early knockout rounds quickly evolved into a catalyst for concerns about the manner in which the Three Lions would react to the mental challenge of falling behind in a game, a test which Southgate’s men passed when they overturned a one-goal deficit to eliminate Kasper Hjulmand’s Denmark at the semi-final stage on Wednesday night. Much of England’s remarkable defensive record must be attributed to Southgate who has instilled a confidence in his squad that has allowed them to be comfortable playing with either a traditional back four or employing a five at the back system. This has allowed his side to effectively respond to any sudden change in the dynamic of a key match, a tool which could be integral to a potential English victory on Sunday.
Despite only conceding one goal throughout the competition to date, Jordan Pickford has been highlighted by an array of pundits as a weak link in Southgate’s line-up, with one of the biggest criticisms of the Everton man’s game being how erratic he has looked with the ball at his feet, a flaw which has also been evident in his opponent Gianluigi Donnarumma’s game. Pickford’s record of keeping seven consecutive clean sheets came to an end at the hands of Mikkel Damsgaard; however, the Sunderland-born shot-stopper will take solace from the fact that he is only the second goalkeeper in England history to have reached the seven game milestone, with the one and only Gordon Banks completing the feat in 1966. There’s no need for any reminders of what happened that year.
Superstitious English fans may also take confidence from the fact that Pickford is just the second goalkeeper in European Championship history to keep at least five clean sheets at a single edition of the competition. The only other netminder to achieve this was Spanish legend Iker Casillas who would go on to claim the Henri Delaunay Trophy in the same campaign. Sunday’s final will not only see Pickford attempt to emulate Banks’s success of winning a major international tournament but it will also witness the England No.1 attempting to complete an interesting hat-trick as he looks to join his fellow English goalkeepers as a European championship winner, as substitutes Aaron Ramsdale and Sam Johnstone have both previously been members of successful underage English European Championship victories. In the same way that there are many optimistic omens for Pickford, there are also some ominous ones, most notably that the likely defence in front of him (Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw) have all squandered the chance of taking home European cup trophies this season at the final stage.
As a matter of fact, England’s squad does not boast the most encouraging record when it comes to European cup finals. Four members of Southgate’s squad have won Champions League finals; however, this is outweighed by the seven English players who have lost on the biggest club stage. The Europa League has also presented issues for English players over the years with only two gold medals being shared between the squad, whilst four of Southgate’s men have tasted the bitter pill of losing out in the final of the second-tier competition of European club football. The likes of Mount, Reece James and Conor Coady have all tasted underage Euro success with England, whilst Foden and Sancho have enjoyed World Cup victory with The Young Lions. Sancho and Foden have also fallen short in underage European Championship finals however, a feat which they will not hope to repeat.
Penalty shootouts have been the cause of English heartbreak at major international tournaments in 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012, and if there is no separating the Three Lions and the Azzurri it could come down to spot kicks again, just as it did when Andrea Pirlo’s iconic Panenka penalty helped send Roy Hodgson’s men packing. Thankfully for England, should history repeat itself and the final goes the full distance, they can take confidence from their recent shootout record, which includes their 2018 World Cup win versus Colombia. 25 years on from Southgate’s ill-famed spot kick at Euro 1996, an English penalty shootout win could erase this painful English memory and heal the scars of the England manager’s past.
“Everyone seems to know the score. They’ve seen it all before. They just know. They’re so sure. That England’s gonna throw it away. Gonna blow it away.”
“But I know they can play…”