England are dreaming of Euro 2020 glory after finally slaying old nemesis Germany in the knockout stages of a major tournament and now have a favourable draw against Ukraine in the quarter-finals.
A 2-0 win over the four-time world champions at a raucous Wembley — thanks to late goals from Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane — rewarded England manager Gareth Southgate’s measured approach, which had been criticised for being overly cautious in the group phase.
Southgate knows only too well what the consequences of failure are for England against Germany in a major tournament on home soil. His distinguished playing career was forever dogged by a miss in the penalty shootout at Euro 96 that sent the Germans to the final.
Twenty-five years on, England are still waiting for their first major tournament win since 1966, when they beat Germany in the World Cup final, but are at least now consistent contenders. The Three Lions reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the inaugural Nations League. And only a major shock in Rome on Saturday will deny them a last-four spot once more.
Southgate’s style on the sidelines in Russia caused a spike in demand for waistcoats back home but on the field he has shown himself to be a pragmatist, willing to put his neck on the line with unpopular decisions.
“You know that if you change the shape, you pick certain personnel instead of others and, if it goes wrong, you’re dead,” he said after switching to a 3-4-3 formation to match up with Germany’s wing-backs. That meant Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Mason Mount all started the game sitting on the bench.
Blessed with England’s best array of attacking talent in decades, Southgate has instead focused on building solid foundations. The results are clear to see after they started a tournament with four consecutive clean sheets for the first time since 1966.
“Not for the first time in the last three weeks, sticking to his beliefs and gut instincts has been rewarded,” former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher wrote in the Telegraph. “It has been a long time since England had such a single-minded leader who is prepared to thrive or fail on his own terms.”
Southgate’s loaded bench also means England have the weapons to decide games as fatigue sets in. Grealish was the game-changer after his introduction 20 minutes from time with a part in both goals, but the manager’s faith in Sterling and Kane was also rewarded.
After a poor end to the season with Manchester City, there were calls for Sterling to be dropped before the tournament began. However, with three of his country’s four goals, the 26-year-old has finally delivered at a major tournament.
Kane already has a World Cup Golden Boot to his name but had barely looked like scoring in the opening three games of Euro 2020. The England skipper’s time finally came four minutes from the end when he nodded home Grealish’s cross to send the home crowd wild. “With 75 minutes on the clock, Wembley reverberated to a noise 25 years in the waiting,” said the Times.
The newspaper said the fear was that Southgate’s tactics “felt like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a roller — it might get the job done but not as attractively as desired. Yet then two swift, perfect brush strokes produced a masterpiece.”
If England see off a limited Ukraine side hampered by injuries on Saturday they will be back at Wembley for the semi-finals, with the permitted capacity extended to 60,000 as coronavirus restrictions are eased. A quarter of a century after it was supposed to, football may be finally coming home for Southgate and England.