You would think after winning the group, having the second-tightest defense in Euro 2020 so far (1.4 x GA), and being safely into the Round of 16 would be enough for England fans. But of course, this is England, and if they’re not complaining or being miserable, much like sharks not swimming, they die. Or so it seems.
No, England has not set this tournament on fire. But one wonders if the pure excitement and joy Scotland got from a scoreless draw in the second game isn’t coloring England’s emotions at the moment. Games against one’s biggest rival are always overvalued, and I say this as someone that has let games against the Cardinals or Packers or Red Wings ruin entire weeks of his life, if not months. If England had drawn against Croatia and beaten Scotland, you get the feeling the emotions around the England team and manager Gareth Southgate would be lighter. Such is the way.
The frustration stems from England’s array of attacking talent not leading to an aggregate 10-0 group stage and looking like an unholy force worthy of songs and poetry. That ignores the fact that this sort of thing doesn’t happen all that much in an international tournament anymore, especially after this past season that was so crunched and so tiring. Because France had 4-3 and 4-2 wins in the last World Cup over Argentina and Croatia respectively, the memory is that it simply sashayed through the whole tournament. Not so. It ground out results against Uruguay and Belgium as well as Peru. France manager Didier Deschamps has faced similar critiques, though far less vocal, about his conservative style with the insulting amount of attacking talent he has at his disposal. We know Portugal didn’t bother to cross the halfway line much in the last Euros.
Given the schedule of international games, where you only have the team together for sporadic weeks throughout the season and then only a couple before summer tournaments, it’s far easier to make these teams defensively stout than it does to make them a vibrant attacking force. The latter requires weeks, if not months, if not years, and regular games to develop understanding and anticipation between teammates. Defensive solidarity is more about positioning and reaction, which is much easier to string together on a tight timeline.
England fans have looked longingly at Italy and Belgium in this tournament, who have looked like dominant attacking forces thus far. But that ignores the fact that this Belgium team has been playing together for quite a while. Lukaku, De Bruyne, both Hazards, Witsel and Mertens, have been through a few tournaments together now. Italy has looked great, but it also hasn’t won anything yet, and any team with speed on the wings is going to give their Brimley-esque backline some heartburn. Switzerland, Turkey, and Wales are not those teams.
England is still something of a burgeoning squad. Phil Foden only broke into the team this season. Same for Kalvin Phillips, or Jack Grealish. Mason Mount broke through only last season. It’s no wonder that Raheem Sterling, a stalwart on the team for a few years now next to Harry Kane, has the only two goals.
For the English fans and press, there’s always a player who isn’t playing who holds the key to it all. And there’s always one who’s holding the entire team back. The latter was Sterling when he was announced in the lineup before the first game, and then he scored. The former cause célèbre was Grealish when Foden started ahead of him, even though Foden plays on the other side and was a revelation for Man City this season. There was a time, just a few months ago, when the mass wave of moaning was for Foden to get into the lineup.
Southgate certainly made a misstep in starting Sterling again against Scotland, a team that was never going to give him space to run in behind as Croatia and the Czech Republic did, but it would have been difficult to drop the previous game’s scorer. Grealish came on and didn’t do much, then started against the Czechs. Once that happened, the cry was why Bukayo Saka started over Jadon Sancho (something the truly lost and bewildered couldn’t understand at the start). Saka then proceeded to have one of the performances of the tournament, including the most successful dribbles of anyone on the England team for the whole tourney, and he’s only played 84 minutes.
As Football365 pointed out, what Southgate seems to really value is not just attacking intent but willingness to track back, never a strong suit of Sancho’s. Multiple times against the Czechs, you would have spotted Grealish or Saka sprinting back to cover for fullbacks or midfielders. Again, doing the defensive work doesn’t require feel and relationships to be built over time. Players just have to do it. That’s where Southgate knows his bread will be buttered.
Yes, England is about to get a face full of France, or Portugal, or Germany in the next round, and a loss there will probably cost Southgate his job. But at some point, you’ve got to beat someone if you want to win the thing, and the surer route to doing that is being water-tight instead of full of pyrotechnics. In some ways, it’s even more trust in your attacking talent, counting on them to find one goal without much prep because they’re just that good instead of banking on them to find three.
Also burn this when Germany scores four next week at Wembley.