England fights for survival instead of control as deep problem resurfaces | Euro 2020


England fights for survival instead of control as deep problem resurfaces |  Euro 2020

As England fell deeper and deeper in the second half, as they succumbed to the same problem holding a lead that had beset them against Colombia and Croatia in the World Cup, the temptation was to wonder if anything had really changed. Why do England so often take the lead in big games and end up turning in on themselves so often, as if every battle had to be turned into a reenactment of the Khartoum defense by General Gordon?

But that may be unfair, or at least to oversimplify the matter. That England failed to keep a lead – again – doesn’t mean that caution was the wrong approach, at least from the start. Southgate’s strength in this tournament has been to develop specific plans for specific games. And for over an hour here it worked. It seemed for a time that England was going to contain Italy. A replacement brought in a little earlier, perhaps, and this slow, doomed retreat might not have happened. But then the best-laid plans can go wrong: The two players Southgate specifically brought in on penalties have both missed.

During his career in England, Southgate went from a back three (the 2018 World Cup) to a back four (the 2018-19 Nations League and Euro qualifiers) to a back three (the League Nations 2020-21) to a back four (the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in March). Put simply, the three full-backs still looked a bit unimaginative going forward, while the full-four left England worryingly open defensively. But what might have looked like indecision became a virtue: Southgate ended up with two formations that his players were comfortable with, two different ways of playing.

Against Germany the three defenders had been deployed to get in shape, Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw used to intercept Robin Gosens and Joshua Kimmich at the top of the pitch, while flooding the central area in which Thomas Müller and Kai Havertz love to fall. Italy, who entered with an unchanged side in their usual 4-3-3, posed a different threat. There must have been a temptation to stick with the 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 hybrid so Mason Mount could try to put pressure on Jorginho, the metronome at the back of the middle of Italian terrain, but instead, Mount sometimes drifts. from the left, and Harry Kane, falling deeply, picked it up.

England, however, were largely content to let Italy dominate possession, and there were long stretches of Italy passing the ball back and forth, probing deep into England’s half, trying to find a way. The way England filled in the gaps may have been suggested by the number of speculative long-range shots or ambitious bullets over the top attempted by Italy.

Luke Shaw converts Kieran Trippier’s cross for England’s opening goal, with the two wingers combining to justify their manager’s selection. Photograph: Andy Rain / AFP / Getty Images

Often times when they did break Kane found himself outnumbered – and he had little success with his back on goal against Leonardo Bonucci even when he wasn’t. Every now and then, however, Sterling was able to unleash his dribbling ability and every now and then there was a sharp wave as the players stood up to support Kane. But whether accepting such sustained pressure is ever an entirely wise course of action is still questionable.

Prior to this match, Italy had attacked 24% more on their left than on their right in the tournament, with full-back – first Leonardo Spinazzola and then, after his Achilles tendon injury, Emerson Palmieri, s ‘advancing to join Lorenzo Insigne. Bukayo Saka could have been used to try to corner him or get behind him, but Southgate explained the idea of ​​using a winger for pre-game work: winger because he ends up defending in our own third of ground. We want to keep our attackers higher up the pitch, which we hope will cause them problems higher up. “

When Shaw kept the ball to the left in the second minute, he had the confidence to move forward, knowing there was cover. As England crumbled, Kyle Walker created space for Trippier to cross with an outward thrust and Shaw coming from behind the defense pulled him. As the justifications for the offensive merits of 3-4-3 go, they don’t come much better than a rear wing crossover for the other mark.

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But as the second half progressed, the pressure became more and more stifling. When the ball advanced, it came straight back. Those drastic breaks at the start of the first half have become a distant memory. England started to give the ball away, pushing it forward rather than using it judiciously. The difference between holding an opponent at arm’s length and applying pressure is always slim. It was no longer control. It was survival. Eventually the pressure got too much. Could England have done more to clear the corner? Could Jordan Pickford have had more on the initial stop? Perhaps. But the cumulative effect of all that defense was too great.

At that point Southgate, desperate to put England back in the spotlight, brought in Saka and returned to the 4-3-3 that started against Denmark. Then came Jordan Henderson for Declan Rice. And that took the game over in the Italian half. Would it have worked from the start? Maybe, but one of England’s advantages throughout the tournament has been the strength of their bench against tired opponents. Jack Grealish came in, in vain.

And so, with some narrative fatality, to the penalties – which in theory should have suited Southgate’s meticulous planning. They didn’t and England paid for that second half where they fell deeper and deeper and became bad old England again.


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