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This was more than just a chance to make the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 for England.

This was an opportunity to banish some ghosts of the past and finally dismiss all talk of historic heartbreak. While England didn’t take that chance as emphatically as some would have liked, few can argue with the final outcome.

In the grand scheme of things, this 2-0 win for the Three Lions over Germany is just one more step forward in the tournament, but not all steps are equal and this felt like a big one. Gareth Southgate has faced questions and criticism from the moment Euro 2020 kicked off, but this was 90 minutes of vindication for him.

The opening 10 minutes were a chastening experience for England who found themselves exposed through the middle, where Leon Goretzka made two surging, unchallenged runs early on. The detachment between the back three and the double pivot of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice denied England the structure to progress the ball forward.

However, an alteration was soon made which saw England move their defensive line 10 yards up the pitch which helped address that detachment, with Phillips and Rice doing more to control the contest through their passing as Germany started to grow more careless on the ball. The pair also grew as disruptors, with Phillips regaining possession no fewer than 11 times over the 90 minutes.

After 45 minutes, the temptation was to call this an archetypal ‘Tactical Battle,’ but that would have overstated the execution on display from both teams. In truth, the first half was an encounter between two sides without a clear plan for creating and scoring goals beyond playing for set pieces and releasing wide forwards into the channels with long passes.

This, however, was how Southgate planned it all along. His decision to pick a team that didn’t include the likes of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount from the start hinted this would be a game decided by the percentages. Once England gave themselves a platform, once they were confident they had nullified Germany, the game plan changed.

Even in the changes made after the hour mark, Southgate maintained his team’s shape. When Grealish was introduced off the bench with 20 minutes left, he replaced Saka. It was a similar story against Scotland when Foden was hooked for the Aston Villa man rather than just allowing both players to create overloads in the attacking third.

Grealish’s presence was still enough to pull the German defence out of position for the first goal, with Sterling’s drive into the middle the sort of direct action England had missed up until that moment [Sterling made more dribbles, three, than any other England player]. With Grealish, Kane and Sterling all close together, the out ball to Luke Shaw was made possible.

It was a similar passing triangle that created the opportunity for England’s second goal, but with Grealish, who made his six total passes off the bench count, this time offering the out ball on the left side.

While Southgate has faced a clamour to start Grealish, he used the wide creator shrewdly, waiting until a time he knew the 25-year-old would have an impact on the game.

Pre-match, the switch to a back three prompted much discussion, but Southgate’s bold call saw his team match Germany in every match. It also gave Kieran Trippier the space and freedom to pepper the opposition box with crosses – only Kevin de Bruyne [33] has created more chances than the Atletico Madrid right back [27] at Euro 2020 so far.

England must still retain some perspective, even after such a momentous victory. Southgate’s conservative approach needs some good fortune to work, and his team got that when Thomas Muller spurned a one-on-one opportunity shortly after Sterling’s opener. A sharper finisher, like Romelu Lukaku, likely would have levelled things up.

Belgium and Italy still look more comfortable in their own skin, but England, who still haven’t conceded a goal at Euro 2020, have proved their credentials as destroyers capable of levelling the odds against anyone.

In tournament football, this is a valuable trait to possess. It’s what France did three years ago at the 2018 World Cup.

Source: Graham Ruthven

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