1966 still lingers in the national psyche of England as a football nation, but maybe only until Sunday.
The pain and disappointment of the last 55 years was condensed into 120 minutes of this Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark, but unlike in 1990 or 1996 or 2018, the weight of expectation appeared to push the Three Lions over the line and into the final.
That weight will be even heavier on Sunday when England take on Italy in front of a home crowd, but this group of players have been emboldened by the pre-tournament predictions of glory.
England might not be Euro 2020’s most exhilarating team, but few have played with their focus. Each game has merely been about setting up the next one. Now, there are no more games besides the final.
Southgate sticks with system
Continuing a common theme for England at Euro 2020, this was Gareth Southgate’s team at their best and their worst. In terms of their individual quality, Denmark shouldn’t have been able to match the Three Lions as they did for much of the match.
There remains a sense England are being held back by their system and approach, yet it was these two things that saw them gain another big result. This has been the paradox of England’s tournament.
The first half didn’t go to plan for England. The root of their problems was in the centre of the pitch where Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg [who made 68 passes] controlled the contest in the early stages.
Southgate’s system depends on Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice to dominate the midfield, either through their individual battles or their combination play as a pair, but the lack of progressive passing from deep harmed England.
England’s life wasn’t made easy by the Danish press. While Kasper Hjulmand’s side didn’t necessarily impose a high press out of possession, their precise pressing triggers resulted in England looking flustered on the ball, giving up three turnovers in 25 minutes.
Southgate appealed for calm from the touchline, but desperation had already seeped into the mindset of many of his players, most notably Jordan Pickford.
Mikkel Damsgaard’s opener only added to the sense of English panic for a 15-minute spell, but it was at this point that England’s key players, the defenders in particular, increased the number of compact, on-the-ground passes they were playing. This saw the Three Lions regain control and stop any further damage at a difficult stage of the match for them.
This is the sort of in-game intelligence and technical ability that proved to be beyond England in their last tournament semi-final, at the 2018 World Cup, when Croatia dictated the full match.
As the first half ended, it was Denmark who were struggling to get on the ball as England started to find more space in the channels [this is where the equaliser came from, with Bukayo Saka released in behind to square for Raheem Sterling].
And yet when the second half began, the same midfield vulnerabilities re-appeared. For a team using two deep-lying anchors, England were remarkably easy to play through.
While Southgate might have hoped Phillips and Rice would give his side control, their inability to give England a platform in the opposition half handed Denmark the advantage.
Southgate refrained from fragmenting his system, though. When Jack Grealish was introduced in the 69th minute, Saka was hooked – one winger on, one winger off.
A more progressive change might have seen Jordan Henderson substituted on for one of Phillips or Rice to provide some dynamism and establish a supply line into Mason Mount and Harry Kane.
Against Ukraine, England were much quicker to feed the ball into Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling. This unsettled their opponents, but Denmark’s back five out of possession meant these channels were often closed off.
Southgate matched up against Germany’s back five in the round of 16 to prevent any overloads in defence, but his refusal to recycle that game plan resulted in a defensive overload in Denmark’s favour.
It wasn’t until extra time that Southgate dared break apart the pairing of Phillips and Rice with Henderson and Phil Foden instantly pushing England 10 yards further forward.
This suffocated an already tiring Denmark team with Foden [who made two key passes in 26 minutes] operating in such an advanced role that he was frequently part of a front two with Kane.
While the award of the winning penalty was dubious, England created the situation from which Sterling [who registered an incredible 10 dribbles] was felled in the box.
With four attackers from left to right, Sterling was left one-on-one against his marker. The tactical overload Denmark enjoyed in defence earlier in the match was eliminated.
Denmark presented the toughest test of the tournament so far for England, and now that they’re through to the final, Southgate and his players can treat it as preparation for facing Italy, who will set up in a similar shape.
They will strain England in many of the same ways, in the wing back positions and in central midfield, but with greater individual quality.
More of the same in the final? It might have to be more than that.
Source: Graham Ruthven