Euro 2020(1): The Semi-Finals – On Making Your Own Luck
Let there be no mistake about it, for all the talk of history being made, this match will probably be remembered for the nature in which it was won. England are in the final of the European Championships, but we need to talk about the nature of hypocrisy in football. The penalty conceded which finally swung the match decisively in England’s way was soft, of that there is no question. Joakim Mæhle swung a tired-looking leg in the direction of the ball and may or may not have made contact with Raheem Sterling. It is a fact of the modern game that players are coached to go down under such circumstances. Just imagine the Instagram messages he’d have got had he not gone down and Denmark had broken and scored.
But all football supporters are hypocrites, and that’s just fine. Had that penalty been given against a team I support I’d have been apoplectic, and those who are apoplectic at this penalty having been given are perfectly entitled to feel the complete opposite. England supporters will this morning be basking in the glow of knowing that VAR – which they by and large hate – double-checked and rubber-stamped it. Conspiracy theories have doubtless already started on social media. Maintaining any sort of logical consistency, when it comes football, is almost impossible.
The wider story of the evening, however, was that England were the better side over the 120 minutes, even though this wasn’t uniformly spread throughout the game. There was a long period of the first half during which Denmark pressed hard, and it was in the middle of this period that they scored, when a clumsily-conceded foul allowed Mikkel Damsgaard to bend a free-kick over the wall. Jordan Pickford, in the England goal, seemed to struggle to get across, and could only get a fingertip on the ball as it sailed past him and in.
This goal was the culmination of a twenty minute period during which England had started to look increasingly like they had ants in their pants, while Denmark appeared comfortably the more fluid and more physically imposing of the two teams. The goal, however, seemed to finally wake England up, and nine minutes later they were level. When Bukayo Saka wriggled his way to the right-hand touchline and rolled the ball across the face of the Danish goal, it was going in off somebody. Simon Kjær and Raheem Sterling both attacked it, Kjær got the fateful last touch. Not all own goals are a defender turning and witlessly belting a ball past their own goal. It’s quite likely that, with Sterling coming in, Saka played that pass in the full knowledge that it would go in off somebody.
So there’s a lot to be said for the phrase, “you make your own luck”. After about an hour had been played, the tempo at which Denmark were played dropped quite suddenly, and continued to do so for the next fifteen minutes. They made multiple substitutions, including removing their most potent attacking dangers, Damsgaard and Kasper Dolberg. By this stage, it was starting to feel as though the remainder of the match would play out as attack versus defence, with Denmark sprinting forward on the break if they could – they largely couldn’t – while soaking up as much as England could throw at them. The penalty, when it came in extra-time, may or may not have been a foul, but that there was even a question to answer was the result of a tired tackle. Ultimately, Denmark didn’t quite have enough in the tank, and they didn’t quite have luck on their side, but ultimately England won that pivotal penalty because they were in the opposition penalty area in the first place, and Denmark seldom were for much of the last 45 minutes of the match.
Raheem Sterling was England’s standout player, again. His accleration with the ball at his feet remains borderline unplayable, and having to deal with it in July, following a physical and mentally exhausting season, is among a defender’s worst nightmares. Harry Kane continues to drop deep and definitely showed the value of playing in that position. Defensively, Harry Maguire overcame a first half yellow card with an assured performance, once he started channelling his aggression again. Jordan Pickford went through a fairly lengthy phase when he had that look in his eyes, but did seem to regain his composure as the game wore on. By the end, even though there were vast tracts of land behind the Danish defence, England’s game management kicked in, and they ran down the clock at their leisure.
Did anyone seriously believe that this would be easy, though? Does the presumption still remain that England should just automatically beat any country with a smaller population, despite the ample evidence that this isn’t how any of this works, stretching back over many decades? Italy will start the final as narrow favourites, but they’ve been taken to extra-time in two of their three knockout matches and, for all their histrionics after the final whistle on Tuesday night, rode a little luck of their own to get past Spain in their own semi final.
What we can say for certain is that objectivity will go out of the window over the next few days. It’s difficult to say who’ll be more annoying, between the unashamed fanboys and those who loudly proclaim their own lack of bias while being just as subjective as everybody else. The shrill nature of social media and a culture in which saying the most outrageous thing possible for the clicks or the lulz or to make some laboured political point which has nothing to do with football, is the only value that truly matters any more will see to that.
People will choose to hyper-fixate on whether it was a penalty or not, having already decided in their heads before the match even kicked off whether it would be or not. No logical gymnastics are too much of a leap, in this shrill and febrile world. But at the eye of the hurricane, Gareth Southgate and his team remained calm when they needed to last night. They dragged themselves back into the game when it looked as though Denmark might just pull clear of them and perhaps even put it out of sight before half-time.
And good luck doesn’t exist in a vacuum. England have had their fair share of bad luck and incompetence over the years, and it is a shame that Denmark, for whom this tournament became so much more than just another summer tournament before half-time in their first match, should have been on the receiving end of it, this time around. They certainly leave this tournament with their heads held high, following a performance that came very close indeed to matching the extraordinary events of 1992.
England, though, are in the final of a major tournament for the first time in many of our lifetimes and, albeit by a slightly round the houses logic, they do deserve to be there. Italy are an obviously formidable test in the final, and there’s still plenty of scope for things to go horribly wrong for the home team on Sunday evening. But after two semi-finals in a row, in the World Cup and the Nations League,
Gareth Southgate’s development as a manager has guided England over yet another of its self-inflicted psychological hurdles, and it is worth reminding ourselves that all of this this has come five years after successive tournaments at which England had failed to get out of the World Cup group stages for the first time in almost half a century and then been beaten by Iceland. He has continued to grow as a coach since 2018, and his team is grown with him. You might not think it was a penalty kick last night. You may well believe that Denmark were robbed. But the latter stages of the finals of a major tournament are built for heartbreak, and for once it wasn’t England who were on the receiving end of it. Truly, we live in strange times.