The most disappointing thing might be that you knew it would end like this all along. Not simply because English football’s biggest occasion in the last 55 years resulted in a penalty shoot-out defeat, as the big occasions often have in the past, but because several other familiar flaws reared their head along the way.
Let’s start with the penalties, though, because they perhaps carry a good deal of significance for this set of players and this manager.
If Gareth Southgate had achieved anything during his time in charge to date, it was to remove the national team’s long-held neurosis around shoot-outs. That he should be the man to ease those fears also carried a sort of romantic poetic justice, one that felt inevitable in hindsight and irreversible looking forwards.
It was not irreversible, though, and in fact it has now been reversed to the point where Southgate is considered at least partly responsible for both: first, the most painful penalty miss in English football’s recent history as a player, now, its most painful shoot-out defeat as a manager. He accepts the blame for both, given the character he is.
And while people question the selection of the takers, the two late substitutes are hard to argue against. Marcus Rashford is the second-most experienced taker in the squad, converting 15 of the 17 penalties he had previously taken in his career. Jadon Sancho scored three in three for Borussia Dortmund.
Both were smart late substitutes for a squad that is short on penalty experience. Southgate suggested that two of their preferred five – most likely Kieran Trippier and Mason Mount – were already off the pitch and substituted by the time that a shoot-out became a possibility. Rashford and Sancho were not bad replacements, going by their records. They just missed.
The choice of Saka as the fifth and the final is more up for debate, given that this was his first in competitive senior football. Even so, England built a platform on which to succeed. A goalkeeper saving two of the first five penalties and still losing a shoot-out is generally rare. Jordan Pickford’s hard work should have been enough.
Rather than penalties, though, Southgate seemed more concerned with another familiar problem at full time: an inability to keep possession. Again, this was supposed to have been fixed, something had already improved upon having learned lessons from when Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic enjoyed themselves so much at the Luzhniki three years ago.
Italy ended with 62 per cent possession, and though that is exaggerated somewhat by England sitting on a lead for so long, it still could have been closer. Between praising his players’ efforts, Southgate repeated this shortcoming again and again. “It’s something we know we have to be better at but the time to analyse that in depth is not at this moment,” he said.
Interestingly, this was no one-off at this tournament either. Southgate said something similar just a few days ago, after the semi-final victory over Denmark, and expressed slight frustration at England’s inability to initially keep hold of the ball when protecting their 2-1 extra time lead. It did not have bearing on the result then. Yet for the final, it did.
That all comes down to game management, which is something that has been a problem in the past and still requires practice by Southgate and his players, judging by the evidence of this final. England have been extremely effective at assuming control, refusing to take risks and holding onto a lead at this tournament – it was basically the story of their group stage – but those abilities evaded them at the very last.
Bukayo Saka’s crucial penalty was saved
Remarkably, England conceded still just two goals at this tournament from start to finish, despite playing more minutes than anyone but Italy. The game plan out of possession was solid throughout the summer. By contrast, everyone’s outright favourites France conceded the same number in the space of nine minutes to draw, play extra time and eventually go out against Switzerland.
But before going any further, try this useful thought experiment: could you imagine England playing at the Stadio Olimpico, going a goal down within three minutes of a tournament final, but coming back to equalise and win on penalties? Of course you couldn’t, because that sort of thing has quite literally never happened in human history. And yet it has now happened to England.
Southgate’s changes and the timing of those alterations also played a part. Like after the defeat to Croatia three years ago, questions will be asked about his substitutions. Basically every change leading up to this point in the tournament was a success. That was not the case this time, particularly in the case of Saka, who struggled to get into the game before his penalty miss.
And that, finally, ties into the one, new problem with England that this most painful defeat exposed: making the most of all your talent. It has not been such a big problem in the past because the talent has not always been there. Yet when considering that Sancho played so little, that Phil Foden was barely seen after the first two games, that Jack Grealish only appeared in fits and starts, you wonder whether when all is said and done, Southgate left something on the table.
Those players were not the only ones – England had an excellent Champions League-winning left-back at this tournament who did not play a minute – and even if there are additional, Covid-related circumstances to consider regarding Ben Chilwell, the overall picture is one of a team that did not always make the most of its talent.
There has been progress. That is unquestionable. England are certainly on the right path under Southgate, too. Yet it should be a point of frustration, inside and outside the set-up, that the 55-year wait for tournament success goes on because of several longstanding issues that feel all too familiar to those that follow England, plus a new phenomenon that needs nipping in the bud.
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