In the end, Gareth Southgate could not do it all. He had made England tactically flexible. He had made the experience of playing for England enjoyable. He had fostered the sort of togetherness England have perhaps not demonstrated in half a century. He had even generated a decent relationship with the media. But in the end, he could not overcome England’s long-term habit of taking the lead in big games then instinctively dropping deep, determinedly creating a siege situation where there was no need for one to exist.
And in the aftermath, as sneerers mocked, as fans vented their frustration, as columnists offered their vacuous panaceas, it was hard not to reflect what an impossible thing the England national team is. It’s not just the political aspect, the fact that the national team is a symbol of the nation and so is endlessly wrestled over by external forces. It’s not just that, though no fault of its own, it represents a fanbase that contains a deeply unpleasant element, those who racially abuse players, those who intimidate opposing fans, those who congregate in their tens of thousands on Olympic Way, wreaking havoc until, drunk and coked up, they charge the gates.
It’s that there is a utopianism about England, a weird belief that they should win everything all the time, playing brilliantly. It’s perhaps in the nature of international football that too much is read into too little, but still much of the reaction was nonsensical. Of course there is a sense of an opportunity lost. England may never again get to play in a major tournament in which they are at home for six games out of seven, while other nations are making absurd journeys back and forth across the continent (given how disgraceful the security on Sunday, it may be a long time before Wembley hosts a major international game). They may never again go into a tournament with such a bright young squad and find the draw opening up before them.
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So of course there is frustration. But at the same time, this was England’s best ever performance in a European Championship. It’s the first time since 1966 that they’ve won three knockout games in the same tournament. They were behind for only nine minutes across the entire competition. And with half an hour of the final to go, they led 1-0. Had Marcus Rashford’s penalty been four inches to the right, they probably would have won the shoot-out. They haven’t been that close to success for 55 years. To write off Southgate’s approach, or to demand radical changes, suggests an absurd sense of entitlement.
Which is not to say there aren’t lessons to be learned. Only nine players from the 2018 squad were in the 2021 squad; the evolution will go on. But to talk in vague general terms of the need for Southgate to be bolder, to trust his talent, to play Jack Grealish or Jadon Sancho or whoever from the start, is to miss the point.

Gareth Southgate, Head Coach of England applauds fans after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Final between Italy and England at Wembley Stadium

Image credit: Getty Images

Where Southgate has excelled is his research, planning and clarity of vision. He has picked teams for specific games, ignored the wider clamour. It had worked through the tournament, most obviously against Germany, who were held at arm’s length and then beaten with attacking substitutions.
And for a time it worked against Italy. The return to the back three allowed England to pressure Emerson Palmieri, because Kieran Tripper could pick up his forward runs while Raheem Sterling could attack the space behind him. As Southgate had said, to play a back four might have meant a winger spending his time tracking him. Wing-backs also offer an extra angle of attack: that Engand’s goal came from one crossing for the other to score was emphatic vindication.
For half of the first half, England seemed in control. But then the counter became less frequent, Italy held the ball for longer and longer spells. By the second half, England had dropped deep, as they so often do when protecting a lead in a major game. Their use of the ball lost its purpose. Possession was squandered, which led to wave after wave of Italy attacks with the inevitable consequence.
But that is less a tactical issue than a psychological one that then becomes tactical. Something similar had happened against Belgium in the Nations League last year, but Southgate was able to use half-time to readjust and get the wing-backs higher. Perhaps here he was slow to react. Perhaps an earlier substitution could have checked the Italian surge.

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If there is a consistent criticism to be made of him, it is that he can be slow to react within games, as he was against Croatia in the World Cup. It may be that all the research, all the drawing up of plans, can generate an inertia. It may simply be that he is not a manager who is instinctively good at ‘smelling’ games and reacting accordingly. Which is not an insurmountable problem: not all mangers can be exceptional at everything. It may be that Southgate recognises that deficiency and that the blueprints are a means of coping.
The broader long-term concern is that seeking solutions for the future by study of the past risks always fighting the last war. Southgate has spoken repeatedly of how he looked to France in 2018 and Portugal in 2016 as models of how to manage tournaments and that to an extent has probably informed his caution.
International football for a decade has been about pragmatism, about stopping the opposition and seizing key moments. But, beyond France, there was some evidence in 2018 that coaches were working out a way of playing more fluent, coherent football, even with the limited time available to the national squad. Luis Enrique and Roberto Mancini both achieved that in these Euros. There is a danger Southgate has been caught on the wrong side of a historical wave.
But still, only one other manager in the history of the English game has led a side to both a final and a semi-final. England have never been so close to winning the Euros. Southgate is probably due a little faith to work out how he can amend his approach for Qatar, and try to stave off that instinct to retreat and hold what you have.
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