Well, everyone saw it, everyone was sick at the end (and probably sick of reading about it), and no one will forget Bukayo Saka’s devastation. Really felt for the lad, Rashford and Sancho, too. As the latter were being introduced, I said during our watch party, “Can you imagine what’s going through their minds right, now? I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes coming in cold for penalties.”
So I’m going to start with those now infamous spot kicks because I feel obliged to say something in conclusion about it all, and I’m even more sick and tired of Grealish-to-City click-bait.
I’ve heard from all corners that professional footballers should uniformly be stone-cold from the spot. And in training, you surely won’t see many misses. But training is a far cry from the pressure cooker of a nation, continent, and even the world looking down on you under the floodlights at Wembley while you walk alone to the middle of an empty box to do something everyone thinks is a given—and with only a nation’s first tournament tournament title since 1966 hanging in the balance. Time to think, time to worry. Time to appreciate the magnitude of a situation that none of them honestly wanted to face.
The roulette wheel spins. You never know how significant your turn is going to be. For a regular like Harry Kane, it’s not so unusual. Harry Maguire? That was stone cold, but I’m not sure he has much imagination to get in the way. Regardless, you either convert what the armchairs think is unmissable, or you become a solitary, tragic figure.
For me, it should never have come to penalties. As I wrote in the comments on the last thread, England should be playing to avoid that situation at almost any cost, especially when history is calling. I know, better to still have a chance than lose by trying to win in regular or extra time. But then that really should be more suitable to Switzerland’s and Denmark’s line of thinking. It’s about a certain attitude, one we’ve become familiar with under Dean Smith.
But as penalties increasingly looked to be on the cards, Sancho and Rashford should have been brought on earlier in the second period of overtime to calm the nerves, work up a sweat, and get in the groove. The fact that both had been largely overlooked throughout the tournament can’t have helped matters either.
We all know Roy Keane is a top-flight jerk, but he’s not necessarily wrong about the burden imposed on Saka. At the same time, we all know what would’ve happened had Jack or Raheem overruled Gareth, taken the ball, and gone on to miss. That’s perhaps the biggest idiocy in Keane’s blathering line of criticism.
Southgate underused Grealish throughout the tournament. For whatever reasons, he preferred two cold players and a kid in the shootout. But he’d basically done that to Jack all along. In Southgate’s defense, we all know Jack doesn’t take pens for Villa.
The abuse (and violence) that followed the all-too-predictable result was disgraceful and inexcusable. But we keep saying that and still it persists. It makes me truly despair to see so much racism and anger on proud display, but I can’t say I’m surprised. And I know as well as anyone it’s not limited to England. Supporters and teammates rallying around the trio is heartwarming. Tyrone quite rightly calling out Patel was an added bonus. I applaud him for having a voice and using it.
What about the rest?
The match itself? Well, Gareth may have been crazy like a fox getting to the final, and of course we have to give the team credit. A big accomplishment given history, and they did take Italy the distance. But he didn’t outfox Mancini on the night, and increasingly seemed a little out of his depth. Where Mancini took full advantage of substitutions to inject energy and change the game, Southgate persisted too long with a lineup that had simply shrunk back to hold on. And then he persisted in not changing things enough. While remaining resolute at the back, there never seemed any real danger England were going to snatch a winner. While sloppy and fortunate, Italy’s equalizer was always coming.
Then again, at least one Italian could’ve seen red, and I don’t think the highly esteemed Bjorn Kuipers distinguished himself. All well and good to keep the game moving, but his bemused attitude toward the usual theatrics turned to a bit of cowardice when it came to making big calls that would inevitably change the match. However, you couldn’t say they wouldn’t have deserved to. Italy took full advantage of his reluctance to punish their tactics.
What’s next for England?
Every Villan has said it, then we piped down, and then we came back after to say it again: Grealish simply has to play more, and in all probability, Southgate should be building this team around him. He won’t, of course, because of 1) his defensive, overly cautious approach, and 2) Jack’s mercurial style. But he should. No idea what he’ll have learned from this tournament. Probably that he can keep playing this way and get results.
Within the legion of self-proclaimed experts doing the armchairs in comment sections of some of the more reputable papers, I saw “Grealish falls over,” “What did he do?”, “He plays for Villa.” You know. Also saw calls for a different set-up that doesn’t necessarily include Jack. Some combination of Sancho, Foden, Bellingham, Mount still, and Saka. But they haven’t watched Grealish play 38 or 46 games a season.
Where the critics truly fall short is not accounting for the most important element: Grealish is used to carrying a team. Used to being the one player every opponent focuses on, and the one who still creates, scores, and makes the players around him better. But you need to give him the ball, and you need to give him time to get involved. He still finished with more assists than Mount. Would England have got past Germany without him?
Mount is a steady player who does have flashes of danger in him. But Southgate already has a more experienced, ready-made playmaker and leader in his ranks. He doesn’t need to waste England’s time developing a player who’s nowhere near as battle-tested and not used to being everything to a side. Has he played in the CL? Sure. Does that supposedly make him more savvy and experienced? Apparently. But we didn’t see any real evidence of that on the pitch.
But if Southgate is going that way, why not at least assemble a cohesive second line? If Sterling, Mount, and Saka were and are nailed on to start, how about Jack, Foden, Sancho, or Bellingham working together and being brought on in quick and considered succession?
I should also add that if you’re going to play two defensive mids, Southgate should take a page from Smith’s book and make one of them a true box-to-box player who has a shot, pass, and creativity on him along with a tackle and a mean streak. I thought Rice and Phillips both had some great performances, Rice in particular during the final. Have a lot of time for them both, would love to see either at Villa. But neither really proved a consistent link-up man in this set-up, never mind Mount. England conceded the middle of the pitch, partly by design, partly by not having the trust and personnel in to use it. But Italy, and others, got used to the quick-hit focus on the channels and England’s insistence on playing wide and switching play rather ponderously. Dangerous early in matches, England were largely nullified the rest of the way.
Final Armchair Thoughts
You need that extra something to turn 1-1 into 2-1. You need unpredictability, guile. You need someone looking to be a star who won’t hide. You need that moment of magic. I really don’t think you select your #10 because you’re more worried about defending than attacking when you’ve already got seven defenders on the pitch. Mount faded further and further into obscurity in every match, while it was Jack left to rescue the side twice. England needed a foothold, possession and a more multi-dimensional threat in the middle of the side.
I appreciate the philosophy of bringing through genuinely exciting young talent, but again, if you’re not going to use them, bring in players you will. Still, England could probably have done with one or two fewer defenders in the squad overall, allowing them to keep Sancho and Bellingham around the setup, and instead included a couple midfield options like James Ward-Prowse or James Maddison. Quick, combative, creative, and maybe even lethal from dead balls. Henderson ultimately offered little of note. I suppose there was some leadership involved, experience, all that. But if you’re not going to use the middle, maybe it makes little difference.
Final, final Armchair Thoughts
As big an accomplishment as it’s been getting to a World Cup semifinal and then a Euro final, it’s hard to stomach getting so close and falling at the final hurdle. England may be used to it, but it still hurts. And it hurts more this time for how it came about, for being so attainable.
On the upside, England did take Italy all the way. With a little luck, they could very well have gotten away without conceding. They could’ve found themselves playing a man up. Rashford’s spot kick could’ve spun in off the post. Didn’t work out that way. Fine margins.
I’ve said before I feel like I’m walking a tightrope in offering criticism. Yeah, I’m Villa and a big Grealish fan. And yeah, everyone’s sick of the narrative. But from watching him play for the club so much, I feel pretty strongly about it. On the other hand, Southgate’s ways very nearly got England over the line. He just didn’t have the courage to makes bolder, better decisions when it mattered in the final.
We know there’s talent in the squad. We know there’s resilience. There’s been progression and we know there’s still room to improve. The World Cup will certainly offer more tests for England than this Euro ultimately did, but valuable lessons are there for the taking. The only real question is whether Southgate will take them on board if he stays.
Over to you.