Ken Early: England’s inquest begins with questions to be asked of Southgate

Italy were allowed back into the game and ultimately the wrong penalty takers picked

Italy manager Roberto Mancini has dedicated his team's Euro 2020 win, secured via penalties after a 1-1 draw with England, to Italians all over the world. Video: Reuters

 

England’s run to the final of the European Championships turned out to be an elaborate build-up to the most painful penalty punchline they have ever suffered. Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missed penalties in a dramatic shootout against Italy, after the Italians had thoroughly outplayed the home side in a tense and exhausting final.

Jordan Pickford’s save from Jorginho, one of the world’s best penalty takers, had seemed to tip the shootout back in England’s direction, but Saka still needed to score to send the game to sudden death. Gianluigi Donnarumma dived left to save, and football was coming to Rome.

It was a stunning end to what had been a stunning final day. All week the English had whipped themselves into a frenzy of anticipation and the day dawned with a sense of wonder at what the long hours leading up to kick off might bring. Early in the morning queues were already forming at pubs and beer gardens. By mid-afternoon it was clear we were witnessing a pre-celebration of truly historic proportions. The spirit of the day was personified by the man in Leicester Square who, noticing someone had lobbed a yellow plastic traffic cone in his direction, fearlessly headed it away.

The English army marched on Wembley in a riot of dangling nutsacks and flares stuck up arses, pausing only to scale tall objects and snort handfuls of white powder to the cheers of their comrades. At the stadium a scene developed which was somewhere between the Rio Carnival and the Capitol riots. Order broke down as groups of ticketless fans surged past security and pushed their way into the lower tier.

You wondered how the England players could deal with such pressure, Harry Maguire seemed to have got off to a bad start by giving away a corner with a misplaced backpass after one minute. But fortune smiled on Maguire. From the corner England broke, Harry Kane picking up the ball in midfield and angling a diagonal pass to Kieran Trippier racing down the right. An overlapping run by Kyle Walker prevented Emerson from committing to the challenge on Trippier who was given time and space to measure a ball to Shaw arriving unmarked on the far side. Shaw connected sweetly on the half-volley and the ball flashed past Donnarumma before he could react.

It was the signature goal of Euro 2020 - one wingback scoring from a cross by the other wingback. Once again England had the early lead. In Rome they had gone on to beat Ukraine 4-0. Italy, though, demanded more respect.

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The new attitude Southgate has brought England can be summed up as: we’re not stupid any more. We’re not going to make the same mistakes you expect from England teams any more. The typical English reaction to that early lead might have been to charge forth in search of another. This team’s response was classically Italian. We’ve scored, now let’s see if you can.

And you wondered where Italy’s goal was going to come from. Ciro Immobile looked unlikely to help, he could barely make an angle to receive the ball, never mind arrive in position to score a chance. Insigne was more successful in getting on the ball but he struggled to make any impression against the power of Kyle Walker.

So Italy passed and passed and passed and England tracked and shadowed and blocked and the minutes of the first half ticked by. How were Italy going to score? The only reason Italy had to be confident was that they had 88 minutes to find the solution and England were content to sit back and let them look for it.

It was Federico Chiesa who provided their first moment of inspiration. There was nothing on when Chiesa picked up the ball near halfway with Rice in close attendance, but the Juventus winger took him on, wriggled past ignoring Rice’s attempts to foul and hit a left-footed drive that flashed past the post with Pickford beaten.

Italy seemed to draw confidence from that but when they finally did manage to find their centre forward in the box with a cross, Immobile kicked it into a defender. Roberto Mancini knew he had to change and on 53 minutes the changes came, with Domenico Berardi and Bryan Cristante replacing Immobile and the subdued Nicolò Barella.

Marco Verratti play a huge part in the equaliser. As the game entered its final quarter, Italy at last drew level. Their pretty play had not brought the breakthrough, but the ugly goals count just the same. An Italian corner came in, Chiellini went for it, Verratti got there and forced a header goalwards. Pickford saved it but it rebounded off the post to Leonardo Bonucci who tapped in, then raced behind the goal to jump up on the advertising hoardings and bask in the acclaim of the rejoicing Italian fans.

Bonucci celebrates with Chiellini after scoring. Photo: Paul Ellis /POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Bonucci celebrates with Chiellini after scoring. Photo: Paul Ellis /POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Now Italy were in control, they had proved themselves the better footballing team, with Verratti and Jorginho outplaying the English midfield, and it was England’s turn to worry: conservatism had backfired, they had let Italy back in the game. It sounded as though the English crowd was running out of white powder: the euphoric surge of the first half wearing off, the jitters descending, followed in short order by the fear.

In England’s favour they still had that bench, stacked with talent, strength in depth that Italy could not match. The substitutes had been decisive in extra time against Denmark. And yet as the time ticked by, Gareth Southgate did nothing. By the 99th minute Italy had made five substitutions, and England only two. Only then did Southgate at last introduce Grealish, but Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho did not appear until the very last minutes of extra time.

Southgate brought them on as penalty specialists, without giving them time to play themselves into the game. Young players who had to take the biggest pressure kicks in English football history having hardly touched the ball. Is this science? Would it not have been better to trust them with some minutes to make an impact in open play? Grealish helped to force Italy onto the back foot: what might have happened if he had been on earlier? The inquest will be long and, one suspects, painful for Gareth Southgate.

As Italy raucously celebrated their well-deserved success, you had to feel a little bit sorry for England’s manager. By beating Germany and leading England to the final, he was said to have been redeemed from his 1996 penalty miss. But the regrets he will have after this final will be so much worse.

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