Euro 2020: How England’s main concerns have become their greatest strengths      – Asia Despatch

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It was a euphoric night that swept away the decades of pain and misery for England.

Raheem Sterling sliced through the Wembley tension with the opener before Harry Kane’s goal had the effect of shedding the baggage the national side has carried around for years.

It had to be Germany, really, to achieve this cathartic impact. England have suffered at their hands so often since another glorious Wembley afternoon back in 1966.

England beat Germany 2-0 on an unforgettable night at Wembley to reach the quarter-finals

England beat Germany 2-0 on an unforgettable night at Wembley to reach the quarter-finals

It was a night of euphoria those lucky enough to be at Wembley Stadium will never forget

It was a night of euphoria those lucky enough to be at Wembley Stadium will never forget 

And as the Euro 2020 knockout rounds open up nicely for England – with Ukraine awaiting them in Rome on Saturday, followed potentially by either Denmark or the Czech Republic – you can’t help but feel the years of hurt could soon be over.

The boos and jeers that followed the dire goalless draw with Scotland in the group stage less than a fortnight ago seem to belong to a bygone age.

Those who trusted in Gareth Southgate’s pragmatism and process are seeing the rewards slowly materialise.

And what is perhaps most fascinating is that many of the aspects of this England team perceived as weaknesses prior to the tournament have actually become their greatest strengths.

‘Out of form’ Sterling is main threat

Remember when Sterling failed to make any impact on the Champions League final and, having scored just once since February, was nowhere near anybody’s preferred England XI?

That was the consensus a month ago when Sterling was struggling for Manchester City and, given England’s depth of attacking options, you did wonder if this regular starter for Southgate would have to make way.

Three goals later and Sterling is being tipped to win the Golden Boot. It turns out a return to his rampaging best just so happened to coincide with a major tournament.

Raheem Sterling (left) leads the celebrations after breaking the deadlock against Germany

Raheem Sterling (left) leads the celebrations after breaking the deadlock against Germany 

It’s certainly true that Sterling performed better in the first half of City’s season than the second but everything is relative.

After scoring 31 times for Pep Guardiola’s side in 2019-20, the following campaign was always likely to be a let-down by comparison, especially such an intense and tiring one.

So while there was an enormous clamour for Marcus Rashford or Jack Grealish or Phil Foden to replace Sterling, Southgate remained loyal to a player who’d rarely let him down on the pitch.

Sterling, who grew up within sight of the Wembley arch, has been truly inspired by playing tournament football there and has that crucial big-game quality of taking the one or two chances that fall your way.

Sterling was out of form and subbed off in the Champions League final just a month ago

Sterling was out of form and subbed off in the Champions League final just a month ago

It’s been especially important with Kane quieter than we might usually expect, although hopefully his tumbling header against Germany will ignite his spark too.

Sterling, meanwhile, is now undroppable. For much of the group stage, he was the player most likely to take on an opposing defender or make that dart behind a back line.

He has played with energy and conviction, driving England forward when their instinct has so often been to go sideways or back. Southgate was right to keep faith in him because form is temporary.

Sterling's goal against Croatia sparked England's Euro campaign into life earlier this month

Sterling’s goal against Croatia sparked England’s Euro campaign into life earlier this month 

‘Vulnerable’ defence has proved rock solid

If you’d predicted before the tournament that England would keep four consecutive clean sheets, having played both Croatia and Germany, you’d have got some funny looks.

If anything was going to let England down, it would be defensive weakness and not their star-studded attack. There was a sense they’d have to score three or four goals in the big games to compensate for vulnerability at the back.

That hasn’t materialised. Against all expectations, England have been rock solid defensively and, until Tuesday night, it was the forward line misfiring.

Indeed, England are the only side at the tournament yet to concede.

Harry Maguire (left) and John Stones (right) have looked impregnable in England's defence

Harry Maguire (left) and John Stones (right) have looked impregnable in England’s defence

Tyrone Mings stepped in brilliantly to partner John Stones in the Croatia and Scotland matches before Harry Maguire returned.

The switch to a back three for the Germany match was effortless, with Kyle Walker putting in an old-fashioned centre-half’s display of blocks and clearances.

It proved Southgate’s England can actually play in different formations as dictated by the opposition and look equally as comfortable.

Luke Shaw has been outstanding on the left side of defence and Trippier has been competent on both sides without showing his best yet.

Tyrone Mings slotted into defence superbly prior to Maguire's return to full fitness

Tyrone Mings slotted into defence superbly prior to Maguire’s return to full fitness 

And on the rare occasions the opponents do pierce this resolute back line, Jordan Pickford has been on hand to make crucial saves.

The keeper has faced 10 shots in the tournament so far and kept them all out, notably denying Timo Werner and Kai Havertz on Tuesday night.

Earlier in the season, there were question marks over Pickford’s England No 1 status as he made errors for Everton but Southgate’s faith has again been vindicated.

Jordan Pickford has been unbeatable so far, saving here from Timo Werner on Tuesday night

Jordan Pickford has been unbeatable so far, saving here from Timo Werner on Tuesday night

‘Crocked’ Maguire has been majestic

More on Maguire, who was touch and go to play at all during this tournament after his ankle ligament injury that kept him out of the last weeks of Manchester United’s season.

Many wouldn’t have risked him and would have left him out of the 26-man squad altogether on fitness grounds. Even when Maguire was picked, the fact Southgate chose an extra centre-half in Ben White to replace the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold spoke of defensive concern.

Ahead of the Czech game, when Maguire returned alongside Stones, it was clear in the warm-ups that even such a leader was nervous, as if fearing his ankle would go again.

Harry Maguire's ability to carry the ball out of defence has proved useful for England

Harry Maguire’s ability to carry the ball out of defence has proved useful for England 

But once that initial trepidation passed, Maguire has been absolutely majestic. Continuing his pre-injury form for United, he kept Werner and Thomas Muller quiet, winning every duel.

There are few better at winning the ball in the air and the presence of the quicker Walker alongside him in the back three leaves England looking less exposed to pace.

It was only a few weeks ago that Maguire was on crutches following an ankle ligament injury

It was only a few weeks ago that Maguire was on crutches following an ankle ligament injury

Maguire is also adept at dribbling the ball out of defence, looking up to scan for a pass and setting the team on their way forward. That was desperately needed in their first couple of games.

The theme of redemption can be overplayed in moments like this but Maguire’s start to last season – in dreadful form for United, sent off for England against Denmark and distracted by his Mykonos assault charge – feels a lifetime ago now.

Maguire hasn't put a foot wrong in his two matches at Euro 2020 so far and will keep his place

Maguire hasn’t put a foot wrong in his two matches at Euro 2020 so far and will keep his place

‘Conservative’ midfield kept the Germans at bay

There were plenty of grumbles about Southgate’s team selection an hour before kick-off on Tuesday night. In effect, England lined up with seven defensive-minded outfield players.

Surely this was the moment, in a knockout game against Germany, to fully stock that amazing attacking arsenal?

Well actually, no. Southgate stuck to his guns and played two of his more defensive midfielders to shield the three centre-backs.

And at times there did appear to be a gap between defence and attack, but the set-up gave England possession and control as well as negating the German threat by matching their system.

Kalvin Phillips helped England win the midfield battle in Tuesday night's win over Germany

Kalvin Phillips helped England win the midfield battle in Tuesday night’s win over Germany

Both Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips performed their midfield duties admirably. 

Early on, a Toni Kroos through ball split the England back line and there was briefly danger but the lesson was learned and the midfielders now knew the warning signs.

Yes, Germany had chances – not least when Thomas Muller skipped through and somehow missed one-on-one in a dramatic sliding doors moment for both countries – but at no point were they controlling the game.

Declan Rice has also proved himself a mainstay of the England midfield with fine displays

Declan Rice has also proved himself a mainstay of the England midfield with fine displays

Had Southgate played an extra attacker or a 4-2-3-1 with Grealish or Foden in from the start, England may well have ceded that control.

Southgate was pilloried after the Scotland game for being too negative in his game plan. It was fair criticism but only up to a point.

Two weeks on and with a major scalp finally achieved at the Euros, it does make a lot more sense.

England's set up may have been perceived as 'negative' but it helped them establish control

England’s set up may have been perceived as ‘negative’ but it helped them establish control

Southgate ‘freezes’ during the big games… but not this time

For three years, since that heart-breaking World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia, Southgate has had to live with recurring ‘what ifs’ in his mind.

The accusation was that Southgate ‘froze’ when it came to making the key tactical switches and substitutions that could have shut the game down in the second half before Ivan Perisic cancelled out Trippier’s early free-kick.

Southgate has no doubt mentally grappled with this every day since.

What if he’d sacrificed an attacker for another holding midfielder to check the influence of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic? What if he’d switched shape to deploy a speedy attacker to man mark the dangerous right-back Sime Vrsaljko?

Southgate made the right change at the right moment in bringing Jack Grealish off the bench

Southgate made the right change at the right moment in bringing Jack Grealish off the bench

What if he’d introduced fresher legs in attack before he finally made his first sub in the 74th minute? Would that have prevented England becoming so penned in and ultimately crumbling?

All painful memories but when it mattered this time, Southgate got his calls spot on.

He didn’t bring on ‘people’s favourite’ Jack Grealish in the 69th minute because 30,000 fans at Wembley were singing his name.

He did it because it was the obvious substitution to make to break the stubborn deadlock.

Southgate didn't make the right decisions against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final

Southgate didn’t make the right decisions against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final

Germany were tiring and Grealish offered something different to Bukayo Saka, who played really well but was finding Antonio Rudiger a tougher opponent to get in behind than the Czech defenders the other night.

It came as no surprise that the fresher Grealish was subsequently involved in both England goals. Southgate got it right and hopefully banished a few mental demons in the process.

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