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Why Euro 2020 knockout stage could yield an epic in the new ‘England way’



It was not quite a rallying cry from Marcus Rashford, but it was a realisation. The England players are well aware their Euro 2020 has been out of sync with the competition as a whole. While most of the tournament has been sensationally open, their games have been tepidly subdued – so far.

“I feel like we have to bring the best version of us and take that to the game,” Rashford said on Thursday. “We want to win the ‘England way’.”

What exactly that way is has formed the core discussion around the FA’s recent revolution, as well as all the debate around the direction of Gareth Southgate’s team. It is highly relevant to what is next, but also to why recent tournaments have been similarly out of sync with the country’s modern history.

The way of England’s tournaments was that they were the team, almost above any other, that would always be involved in an epic.

This undoubtedly feeds into some of the supporter frustration at Southgate’s approach, as well the demand for a throwback maverick like Jack Grealish. The talk of the tournament so far has been “control”, but what people want to feel from such summers is release. They want raised emotions. They want what they grew up with.

There’s a long list of games that commanded total emotional immersion.

There was Argentina 1986, Cameroon 1990, Sweden 1992, Netherlands 1996, Romania 1998, Argentina 1998, Portugal 2000, Portugal 2004 and – above all – a series of games involving Germany. England have had more of those than any other.

The shared football history with Germany was undeniably part of this, granting a gravitas that lifted games to greater levels, and pushed the teams to the limits. There might be a broader fatigue with Euro 96 right now, but listening to the players talk about exhausting everything they had in those matches is enough to spark the emotions; to yearn for similarly vintage tournament matches.

“It began to develop into one of those games,” Darren Anderton says of that semi-final against Germany. “Back and forth. Back and forth. Even playing in it, it felt like I was in a classic football match, that would always be remembered. Like France-Germany 1982 or Italy-Brazil 1982, something special.”

Germany’s Stefan Kuntz described it as “one of the most emotionally intense games” he’d ever been involved in.

The point of this is not more nostalgia, but to wonder what next; whether this is what another tournament match against Germany will bring out, whether Southgate’s approach can ever go to such heights at all.

For the manager’s part, the 2018 semi-final against Croatia was the closest England have come to such an epic in the last decade, but that was mostly connected to how close they were to glory rather than the nature of the specific game. Southgate has since felt the approach to that match was wrong, which partly came from inexperience.

England’s players celebrate taking the lead against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final

(AFP/Getty)

His team haven’t played too many top-class opponents in properly competitive fixtures, which is something else only amplifying the atmosphere around the German game.

Another reason England haven’t played too many epics is because they generally haven’t been involved in too many proper knock-out ties over the last 15 years. Games of this stature are usually the products of unique circumstances, with even summer heat literally adding to the feel of it all.

There’s also the fair argument that the same attacking play that created these epics only revealed the same lack of thinking that led to England’s 2008-16 decline. There was that supposed naivety to the football.

That is only partly true. It wasn’t all like Germany 2010, where Mesut Ozil exposed the flatness of Fabio Capello’s midfield.

England were the equals of Germany 1996, Argentina 1998 and Portugal 2004. These weren’t failures of philosophy or absence of sophistication. The very fact they went to penalties proves that. If the difference was approach to spot-kicks, and teams like Germany and Portugal were praised for that, England can’t be faulted for the football that took them that far. These games even showed some really intelligent management to go with the entertainment of the football, particularly in the way Glenn Hoddle adapted to David Beckham’s red card against Argentina by having Alan Shearer shuttle between midfield and attack.

David Beckham is sent off by referee Kim Nielsen

(Getty)

This is part of the England way, too. This is what the support have been brought up with, and that gets them off their feet.

There is a deeper football merit to the debate, too. “Controlled” approaches only go so far. There are games where you have to lift it, which is part of the pressure around this game.

It is something we’ve really only seen from Southgate’s England in some qualifiers so far, and two Nations League games.

That was forgivable in 2018. Southgate cut a developing team to fit, which was best seen in the pragmatic move to three at the back, and the focus on set-pieces.

England are a very different team to then, though, with a lot more attacking talent.

They have also been one of the drabbest teams at Euro 2020, the lowest-scoring side to ever top a group with just two goals. It stands out all the more because the tournament has been electrifying, and goes beyond the lack of goals from the team. Opta’s figures say England have only progressed the ball 0.98 metres per second in open play in their three games, the lowest in the competition.

(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

It has played into the general feeling the team has been unnecessarily constrained. Southgate was directly asked about this in the build-up, and balked at a question over whether it was time to “take the handbrake off”.

“I mean, we’ve played four attacking players in the matches so far,” he responded. “We don’t say to the players ‘don’t play the ball forward’, ‘don’t move the ball quickly’, ‘don’t attack’.

“We know that we want to be better with the ball and we want to move the ball more quickly. We’ve got to build on the solidity that we’ve shown already to this point.”

That is why many around the England camp feel there shouldn’t be concern around that more constrained football. They believe it is concerted, but not in the way people think.

The idea is to conserve energy, and release it at the right moments. Southgate felt they were too fatigued by the end of the 2018 World Cup. Harry Kane spoke on Friday of how he has planned to do the opposite of that tournament, and be at his sharpest for the biggest games. This is the general approach with the squad.

The plan is to condition England to the point where they are primed to break with pace, to counter-press rapidly, like for that 3-2 win away to Spain in Seville. That is an ideal.

Raheem Sterling netted twice when England beat Spain in the Nations League in 2018

(Getty Images)

A model from elsewhere has been how the Portuguese and French counter-attack.

Southgate wants his own version of that, but more attuned to their own players, and their own identity. This is what the “England way” – a term that has been used a lot – actually is. It is high-pressing and high-energy attacking, but at the right moments, and in the right games.

That is something the fans would relate to. That could create an epic.

The group have been working to those ends ever since the 2019 Nations League finals, and it has formed part of squad discussions.

It’s just that there have been times when Southgate talks a very good game, and one that’s impossible not to admire, only for the actual matches to produce something rather different.

He would again say that’s circumstantial.

“Very often the opposition dictate a lot of the things you’re allowed to do in football matches.”

That is never truer than with England’s epics. They now have opposition who will go for it, and have history.

Some of the ingredients are there. It will reveal England’s true way, both in terms of the path for this tournament, and what they’re really about.



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