Euro 2020(1) – The Second Round: Drama is Overrated

by | Jun 30, 2021

One of the defining characteristics of the England national football team over the last few decades has been the sense of drama that has surrounded them. The penalty shootouts. The moments of individual brilliance. Defeat repeatedly seized from the claws of victory. But while these stories have been very good for building a narrative around the team that spans decades – and there is more than one, from the “heroic failure” narrative to the one which claims that the English are fundamentally unable to change their ways and are doomed to an infinite boot loop of disappointment – they haven’t been so good for the actual fortunes of the team itself.

Too often in the past, in the absence of any strategic vision, England have been over-reliant on once in a lifetime moments of brilliance from individuals and good luck that hasn’t often come their way, and which are less likely to come around, the stronger the opposition they’ve been drawn against. And while we might not realise it, that culture runs deep. Whenever there has been a clamour for a particular player, that player has been the one most likely to be able to provide an individual moment of brilliance which would cover for more systematic issues within the professional game in this country. In the 1970s, it was Rodney Marsh. In the 1980s, it was Glenn Hoddle. In the 1990s, it was Matthew Le Tissier. And it only ever nearly worked when there was something approaching a plan, as in 1990, or when moments of individual brilliance could be wedded to a team that was nearly good enough, as in 1996.

Yesterday afternoon at Wembley, Gareth Southgate made fools of a large number of people. With the England team of 2021, the plan has been clear from the outset. Football is a results-based business, and in the European Championships, almost any opponent you could face could be a banana skin waiting to happen. Croatia, runners-up in the last World Cup, and Czechia, who we’ve subsequently seen go on to knock out the Netherlands, were beaten. Scotland, an opponent for whom rationality goes out the window, got the point that they considered a moral victory, but the point was enough for Southgate. It wasn’t spectacular. There was no need for deep and thoughtful analysis to tell us that. The big question was a very simple one, to which there was no easy answer. What would come next?

When Southgate implored his players to “make their own history”, he wasn’t quite saying what we heard. There has been a tendency in the past to characterise him as a typical middle manager, and such a phrase fits that profile, if we buy into that particular trope. What he may well have meant, though, is something a little more subtle than that. The victories and (considerably more plentiful) defeats of the past will only ever matter as much as we let them, and the England players of 2021 have little to no memory of Wembley in 1996, Turin in 1990, Mexico City in 1986, or any of those other occasions that continue to torment the memories of former players and long-standing supporters. These matches are history and nothing more, to the current generation of players, and one of the keys to unlocking a successful England team is to cast the albatross of the past from their necks.

So, to England vs Germany in 2021, then. There could scarcely have been a better demonstration of how the desperation for success than the slipstream of the Czechia match. Such was the volume of clamour after this match that it became almost impossible to see their next one for what it was. Two wins and clean sheets didn’t matter to some, because England had only scored two goals, and somewhere along the line the fact that Germany had been poor in their final group match against Hungary and only just squeaked through themselves was almost completely forgotten amid the descending panic. Germany had blown hot and cold throughout their three group matches, and this looked for all the world like two fairly evenly-matched teams, but rationality goes out the window in all directions when these two play each other. It felt very much as though what happened in 1990 and 1996 was more important to some than what had happened in the previous couple of weeks.

Perhaps Germany recognised the skittishness of England’s football culture. They certainly came out of the traps at a better pace, jabbing into the England half and creating the best chance of the opening stages of the match, a free-kick on the edge of the England penalty area which Kai Havertz thumped into the wall. But England settled, and as the half progressed they started to take better control of the middle of the pitch, although the better of the chances fell to Germany, most notably when Timo Werner had a shot superbly blocked by Jordan Pickford, until stoppage-time at the end of the first half. Harry Kane’s form throughout this tournament has threatened to turn Kane from Golden Boy to sacrificial lamb, and it felt as though knives were really being sharpened for him when he failed to take he best chance of the half. Raheem Sterling surged through the middle and, surrounded by German defenders, the ball flicked through to Kane at a slightly improbable angle, but Kane’s first touch was too heavy and Mats Hummels managed to nick the ball from his toe.

Goalless at half-time, then, and the pencils were being sharpened for the obituaries. Southgate was a fraud, whose fear of playing the big nations was pushing him towards catenaccio. Kane was a fraud, who had forgotten how to be a really good footballer. A curdled roar of wailing and the gnashing of teeth was preparing to unleash itself. The albatross had been located, given a quick clean, and was being prepared to be placed around the neck of yet another generation of England players. There was a scare at the start of the second half, when Pickford acrobatically tipped Havertz’s shot over the crossbar, but as the second half progressed England started to slowly turn the screw, and midway through came the change that would ultimately determine the outcome of this match.

Bukayo Saka is a remarkable talent, a player of craft, guile and imagination who lights up the pitch whenever he’s in possession of the ball, but he’d failed to make much of an impression on proceedings this time around. Enter stage left, Jack Grealish, the floppy-haired talisman-in-waiting who has started to become this generation’s great missed opportunity, but it wasn’t Grealish who finally provided the key to unlock the German defence. That came from Luke Shaw, at the end of a flowing move across the pitch so apparently effortless and fluid that one wondered why they hadn’t tried it before. Shaw ended up with the ball on the left and delivered a low cross for Raheem Sterling to prod over the line from close range. Catharsis in itself often ends up looking like a false dawn when it comes to England, but on this occasion the huge collective guttural roar sounded as much like, “Ah… now we get it” as anything else.

The immediate reaction on the pitch was for England to gain a spring in their step, but it didn’t take long for a savage reminder of just how fragile a one goal can lead. Thomas Müller has been playing international football for eleven years now, and when he raced clear of two chasing defenders it felt as though England’s lead would turn out to have been short-lived, but on this occasion, with Pickford rushing out to narrow his angle, Müller dragged his shot a foot wide of the right-hand post. There was a collective sigh of relief around Wembley, an exhalation of breath which might, had the stadium been at full capacity rather than half, might have lifted the stadium clear from its moorings and into the stratosphere. The chance had come and gone.

It was, considering everything, a remarkable miss, but within five minutes it was completely forgotten. The catalyst, again, was Luke Shaw, who pushed aggressively through the centre of midfield before finding Grealish in space. Grealish didn’t have to perform any great trickery – tired opposition legs saw to that – but he did curl a delicious cross into the six yard area for Kane to stoop and head the the result beyond any reasonable doubt. England’s captain had broadly played an undistinguished 85 minutes prior to this goal, but on this occasion muscle memory kicked in and his header was perfectly judged. Pandemonium. Balding men in polo shirts tumbling over the tarpaulin that covered the seats that weren’t in use. It had been a tricky afternoon, far trickier than the history books will probably register, but in this moment came a bellicose roar of delight mixed with relief. This time, there was to be no great late drama, about which stand-up comedians will later write songs. On this occasion, 1945, 1966, 1970, 1990 and 1996 mattered as little as they should always have done. This moment was about the England team of 2021.

But if you strip all the atavistic emotion, all the side-eyed cynicism, all the prejudices borne of this scary, skittish juncture in our lives and history, this was a match which largely went as we might have expected. These were two well-matched teams. England had the better attacking options, and Germany had a couple of players who were probably a little past their best. And when the margins are fine – and they’re almost always fine – that can make the difference. For 70 minutes, England played to close down. Their first priority was protect their own goal. But as the game pushed past its three-quarter mark and Germany started to tire a little, chinks of light started to become visible behind their defence. The introduction of Jack Grealish at this point was a power move as much as anything else, an injection of trickery, skill and pace at a point when a slightly creaky Germany defence was starting to look as though it might be little vulnerable to exactly that. In terms of game management, it was close to a masterclass from the manager.

Germany blew hot and cold throughout their four matches at this tournament, and yesterday they managed to do both within the course of 90 minutes. The departure of Jogi Löw, however, gives them the opportunity to refresh, and we all know that they’ll be back. “Never write off the Germans” has become a cliché, over the last few decades, but it’s also something of a truism because historically they always bounce back. If they’re in something of a trough at the moment, the very nature of international football means that they can rebuild, and if nothing else the English may be able to learn something about accepting defeat with grace.

Four hundred miles north in Glasgow, the identity of England’s opponents in their quarter-final match on Saturday wasn’t decided until five and twenty to eleven at night. If Ukraine and Sweden seemed perfectly matched on paper, this turned out to be the case in practice as well. Oleksandr Zinchenko gave Ukraine the lead after 27 minutes, a drive from an angle that squeezed in after a brief diversion off the underside of Robin Olsen’s wrist. The lead, however, didn’t last for that long. Two minutes from half-time, Emil Forsberg’s twenty yard shot deflected off Illya Zabarnyi, catching the goalkeeper Bushchan off-guard and shooting into the roof of the goal.

Forsberg continued to be Sweden’s biggest threat into the second half, forcing a brilliant save from Bushchan and rattling the crossbar from distance, but Ukraine continued to break to good effect. Sweden’s chance came and went in ninety minutes, and in the ninth minute of extra-time came the pivot upon which this match did ultimately come to rest, when Marcus Danielson slid into a tackle on Ukraine’s Artem Besyedin, cracking the sole of his boot into the Ukrainian’s thigh. Danielson may have seen red to prompt the original tackle. He certainly saw red shortly afterwards, courtesy of the card in the referee’s breast pocket. By the closing stages of the match, Ukraine were trying to force home their numerical advantage on the pitch without the need to resort to thepotnetial agony of a penalty shootout, and after 121 punishingly long minutes they caught their break when Zinchenko sent over a perfect cross from the left and Artem Dovbyk headed beyond Olsen, into the corner of the goal. Sweden had a couple of further minutes of stoppage-time to try to claw it back, but Ukraine came through that to set up their first ever tournament quarter-final.

The common refrain this morning will be that England have “nothing to fear” from Ukraine, when the two sides meet in Munich on Saturday night. Perhaps this is the wrong way in which to view tournament football in the 21st century. France proved at the World Cup finals three years ago that game management is critical to a team’s success, these days. We all remember their free-wheeling performance in the final that summer. We’ve largely forgotten them edging through group stage, winning their first match with a late own goal, the second match 1-0, and then goalless drawing their final group match. Ukraine are a good team. They’ve lasted longer than any of the three teams that qualified from this summer’s “Group of Death”, all of whom fell in the second round.

But again, subtle differences in language are important. As it did in 2018, the draw for this summer’s tournament has opened up nicely for England, but it’s a fine line between saying that their next opponents are beatable and starting to sound as though you’re preparing to give them a scolding should they not match our loftiest hopes or expectations. And if game management is important for the modern football coach, then so should expectation management be for the supporter or pundit. The drama that has accompanied the England team around major tournament for the last half-century may make for unforgettable memories and amazing highlights compilations, but it doesn’t seem to have done the team much good in terms of actually winning anything.

The most surprising – and most welcome – aspect of England’s win yesterday is that it was done without depending upon any individual doing something magical. England beat Germany because they were a slightly better team with slightly better attacking options, and slightly better luck. It might not set the pulse racing to quite the same extent, but it has got them to the quarter-finals of this summer’s Euros without having conceded a goal. The captain has finally scored a goal, and his attacking partner has scored three in four games and is looking every bit the brilliant and imaginative forward that we all know he’s capable of being. The challenges that England face will get substantially greater, should they be to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy at Wembley on the 11th July. But they’re still in it when France, Germany, Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands aren’t any more. Gareth Southgate’s strategic plan to lift the trophy seems to be working pretty well at the moment.