FootballInternational Football

Heartbreak for England but there’s plenty to be positive about

July 12, 2021January 7th, 2022

IN so many ways, what unfolded at Wembley on Sunday night was the same old story for England. Just as in 1996, the Three Lions allowed a golden opportunity to win a major tournament on home soil to pass them by. In 2018, England failed to build on an early goal as the opposition controlled the rest of the match. And just like in 1990, 1996 and 2006, it all ended in a penalty shootout.

Something felt different about this particular failure, though. This wasn’t the same old, same old for England. Yes, the Euro 2020 final will be a source of regret for Gareth Southgate and his players for a long time to come, but this is a team only just finding its feet at the top of the international game.

In the past, English failures at major tournaments have almost always resulted in a national inquest. By the time of the calamitous defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016, a customary routine had been established – the players would be slaughtered in the press, the manager would be sacked and root-and-brand reform of the game at grassroots level would be called for.

This time, though, none of that happened. Some of Southgate’s decisions will be analysed, and criticised, but there is recognition across the board of what he is building. His group of players, who have always embraced their roles as more than just footballers, represent the best of a nation.

At grassroots level, English football is in its best shape for a generation, maybe longer. Southgate’s squad was the third youngest at Euro 2020 with many of the team products of the youth system that was overhauled a decade ago. Phil Foden (21), Jadon Sancho (21), Bukayo Saka (19), Mason Mount (22), Declan Rice (22) and Jude Bellingham (18) will form the core of the England squad for years to come.

 

 

Southgate’s England are not at the end of their cycle. The moment of culmination might not have materialised with major tournament glory on home soil, as so many had hoped it would, but the experience of Sunday night will further fuel a group determined to change the narrative of English international football.

Southgate has already demonstrated his capacity for learning lessons. At the 2018 World Cup, England suffered for a lack of control in the centre of the pitch. Three years later, this was addressed through the midfield pairing of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice, who provided their team with structure on and off the ball.

However, this often came at the cost of creativity and threat further up the pitch. This is where Southgate must now focus his efforts ahead of the 2022 World Cup – England must learn to trust their attackers given that they boast so many world class options in the final third. 

If he can do that, this England team will have better days. Southgate might not have fully harnessed his squad as players, but he has embraced them as people. For decades, England seemed to be at war with its own national team. The relationship between those on the inside and those outside was an uncomfortable one. That is no longer the case and this is Southgate’s greatest success as England manager to date.

In the end, football didn’t come home at Euro 2020, but English football did rediscover a sense of self again. A moment of reckoning for Southgate and England’s most talented group of players in over a decade will come at some point, but Sunday night wasn’t it. Instead, it could be the pain that ultimately pushes a country forward to even bigger and better things. And if there’s someone who knows how to use pain and regret to build something positive, it’s Southgate.