As much as England’s Euro 2020 last 16 victory over Germany clearly meant to Gareth Southgate, given his individual history with that particular rivalry, the 50-year-old surely hasn’t enjoyed himself as Three Lions boss as much as he did as his team dismantled Ukraine in Rome.
Indeed, it was the perfect night for Southgate. If he had any critics left on his back after the win against Germany, they have surely been shaken off now after a complete performance in the Italian capital. Ukraine weren’t up to England’s level, but they were never given a chance to pull off an upset.
As has been the case for every match England have played at Euro 2020, Southgate’s team selection for Saturday’s quarter-final caused much pre-match debate. Most notable was the sight of Jadon Sancho’s inclusion in the line-up for the first time in the tournament just one day after news of his £73m transfer to Manchester United broke.
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Mason Mount returned having missed the wins over Czech Republic and Germany in a move that hinted at a more attack-minded focus from England, with the shift back into a defensive unit of four creating another position for a player in the centre of the pitch. The sharpness of England’s final third play still exceeded those expectations, though.
Boosted by his first Euro 2020 goal against Germany, Harry Kane bagged a brace and gave England the sort of cutting edge in front of goal they have lacked at times. Sancho and Raheem Sterling intertwined and interchanged to keep the Ukrainian defence on their toes while Mount led the high press from deep in the knowledge Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice were anchoring things behind him.
Then there was Luke Shaw, who just one week after being publicly attacked by Jose Mourinho once again produced a demonstration of why he is now one of the best full backs in the game. It wasn’t just in the 25-year-old’s surging runs up and down the left wing, but in his final product too - two assists could have been three or four.
Harry Maguire, who only started his first Euro 2020 game against Czech Republic due to injury, got on the score sheet with a thunderous header from one of Shaw’s excellent deliveries, but the 28-year-old’s play out from the back had the biggest influence on England’s performance - nobody on the pitch made more passes (98).
Jordan Henderson is another who has battled injury at this tournament, but still managed to come off the bench to put the game beyond all doubt at 4-0. Southgate might not want to disrupt the balance of his midfield for the semi-final against Denmark, but the Liverpool captain can now be trusted to feature more.
Most impressive, though, is the way Southgate has managed games, and his squad, throughout the tournament so far. He has resisted the clamour to start certain players at certain points and has had the courage in his convictions to make his own decisions. As has been proven, Southgate clearly knows this squad better than anyone else.
Tougher tests await in the semi-final against a Denmark team with real momentum behind them, and in the final against Italy or Spain if England get that far, but the way they have grown with every round suggests there is still even more to come from this group of players. Saturday might have been Southgate’s best night as England manager, but there’s still a potential two more games for that to be surpassed.
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