Win against Ukraine shows how everything has gone England’s way

England 4 Ukraine 0 in Rome

This was probably the most heartening night for England football fans in 30 years. It wasn’t as thrilling as the 4-1 thumping of the Netherlands in 1996 or the 1-5 win in Germany in 2001, but that was the point: except for 10 anxious minutes just before half-time, an unprecedentedly organised England controlled the quarter final of a major tournament, albeit against opponents who had failed their way there.

Gareth Southgate’s team have acquired the continental virtues of possession and positioning, while retaining the British virtue of strength in the air, an area in which they may be the world’s leading team: three of their goals in Rome tonight, and four of their last five, came from headers. With a semi-final at Wembley against Denmark on Wednesday, England are favourites to reach their first final of a major tournament in most of our lifetimes. 

Credit goes first to Southgate. All the manager’s choices at Euro 2020 have paid off: switching to five at the back against Germany, England’s only crunch game so far; the cameos he has given to his shifting cast of young creators, Jack Grealish in previous games, Jadon Sancho tonight; his persistence with Harry Kane even when the centre-forward was invisible in the first three and three-quarter matches; and keeping his players’ loyalty by backing their decision to take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter when Britain’s prime minister equivocated. 

But Southgate also has a better squad to draw on than even the “golden generation” of the early 2000s. The only other team at this tournament with England’s strength in depth were France, who went out early. Almost no other teams have 11 international-class players, but England have about 15, allowing Southgate to rotate with impunity. Youth academies are now so good in England (and in Sancho’s case, in Germany) that the manager can throw on youngsters who can cope immediately with international football.

Above all, he has Raheem Sterling: it’s hard to think of another modern England player who could dribble past opponents as easily. It was Sterling who cut open Ukraine in the fourth minute with his pinpoint pass to Kane.

This team also benefited from having had a dress rehearsal for Euro 2020: the World Cup 2018 in Russia. There they went to the semi-final too, but threw it away in the traditional English way: scoring in the first few minutes, then parking themselves in their own penalty area, hoofing clearances straight to Croatia, until their opponents, granted untrammelled possession, inevitably scored twice.

In Rome, England showed they had learnt from that experience: after Kane’s opening goal, they mostly defended 40 or more yards from their own goal, passed patiently, and kept their fifth clean sheet in five matches this tournament. 

So far, everything at Euro 2020 has gone England’s way. They haven’t tired themselves out playing extra times, and this journey to Rome was their only foreign trip, whereas their rivals are criss-crossing the continent. England haven’t faced a shootout where their kickers would have had to show their first-choice penalties. They have no suspended or injured players. And a largely home-based route to the final that leads through Ukraine and Denmark is as simple as it gets, even if England should stumble on Wednesday. 

Didier Deschamps, the French coach who won the last World Cup, once said that a team’s two most important players are the goalkeeper and the centre-forward. It’s in the “zones of truth” on the field, he explained, that matches are decided.

This bodes well for England. Jordan Pickford in goal, a “tournament player” who outperforms his league self, has been almost faultless at Euro 2020 bar two miskicked clearances tonight. Upfront, Kane’s two goals, added to his strike against Germany last week, may have carried him over a psychological hurdle. He has spent most of his career at Tottenham as the club hero with no obligation to win trophies.

For England, Kane used to freeze in big games, knowing that he was the team’s main man and that these are the matches that would define his career. In the defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016, the last classic England humiliation, he looked so nervous that he couldn’t even lift his free-kicks into the penalty area. In Russia, his only shot on target in the knockout rounds was his penalty against Colombia. And he started Euro 2020 dreadfully. If he is now back to his form at Spurs — where last season, remarkably, he accounted for more than half his club’s goals and assists — then watch out, Europe.

Admittedly, Ukraine were ideal opponents: a poor side who exit the tournament having lost three of their five games, and having beaten only North Macedonia within 90 minutes. Their ambition in Rome seemed to be not to avoid defeat but to avoid humiliation.

What weaknesses in England’s performance here might give hope to Denmark and the other semi-finalists, Italy and Spain? Opponents may want to let England’s weakest passers, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker, get possession at the back, then press them.

But for the first time since 1966, the best bet to win the tournament now is England.

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