Sleeping Lions: England Expects
The Three Lions have marched on at Euro 2020 with more of a meow than a roar, with the overwhelming sentiment that England’s progression has been insipid and uninspiring. Ahead of their Last 16 clash with Germany, we analyse how England’s pre-tournament optimism has drained and whether it can be reinstated with victory over an old nemesis.
It wouldn’t be England at a major tournament without the inevitable negativity that’s become synonymous with them on the grand stage, though for once it’s not because the Three Lions have failed to meet expectations – at least not results-wise. The most positive aspect of England’s Euro 2020 campaign so far is that they have progressed safely to the next round with few imposing questions asked. The next most positive takeaway is that they’ve got to the knockout stages without conceding a single goal and more significantly, without really looking at threat of conceding a goal.
For England to qualify with such relative ease is essentially unheard of, with this just the second time England have survived a three-game group stage at a major tournament without conceding, after the World Cup in 1966 – and as far as English summers go, that one worked out okay. Yes, England’s group-stage performances have been underwhelming at this tournament, but progression often supersedes entertainment during tournament football.
Let’s not forget that France’s World Cup winning side in 2018 plodded through their group with a penalty and an own goal in a 2-1 win against Australia, a narrow 1-0 victory over Peru and a goalless draw with Denmark, before scoring nine goals in the opening two knockout rounds ahead of the semi-finals. So maybe the reaction to England so far has been harsh and as the French would have remarked: jusqu’ici tout va bien.
It still feels like a very English mannerism to doubt and criticise a team that have secured qualification without a chink in their armour, minus the scratches from a few stones hurled over the border by the Tartan Army. You’re still thinking about the bad news aren’t you?
Now that the positives are out of the way, let’s reflect on what has been an underwhelming passage to the knockout stages for Gareth Southgate’s team and discuss how that may affect England’s chances heading deeper into the tournament.
Proceed With Caution
The main criticism surrounding this England team at Euro 2020 has been an absence of attacking intent, despite the wealth of talent available in forward positions to Gareth Southgate. For a squad with such depth in those attacking areas, it would appear unwarranted for England to fail to out-shoot their opponents in any of their three games so far, with Hungary and Finland (both 19) the only teams to attempt fewer group-stage shots overall than the Three Lions (22). England did fly out of the traps against Czech Republic following the aftermath of the Scotland disappointment, but even then, Gareth Southgate’s team faded fast and didn’t fire a shot of any sort at the Czech goal beyond the 26th minute.
England remained unfazed and untroubled defensively though as they have for much of the tournament, which must be considered a positive. Accordingly, England’s expected goals against (xGA) sits at a joint-low of 1.3 from the group stage, alongside Italy, the standout team of the opening phase. The Azzurri were the only other team not to concede a group-stage goal but their campaign has rightly been celebrated with superlatives galore, compared to the cloud of negativity that has shrouded England’s tournament to date.
The difference being that Italy have played with a verve and panache unbefitting of Italian teams in the past, attempting a group-stage high 60 shots whilst conceding just 12 themselves, with Spain the only team to face as few. In attempting nearly three times as many shots (60) as England (22), the Azzurri have scored five more goals whilst still maintaining the same defensive perfection as England. Evidently, England aren’t adopting the same how-not-to-concede blueprint as Italy, with Roberto Mancini’s team also facing more than half as many shots (12) as England (26) despite their influx of chances the other way. Unsurprisingly, England’s three group-stage games saw half as many goals scored collectively (two) as any other team’s, whilst England matches were the only ones not to surpass the 50-shot mark overall.
Much of England’s inexplicably low attacking output can be attributed to an apparent reluctance to progress the ball upfield, with this England team visibly lacking an urgency to move between the lines. That’s explicated when studying the direct speed of England’s open-play sequences, with Southgate’s team progressing the ball upfield at a tournament-low rate of 0.98 metres per second during the group stage. Against Czech Republic, that rate eventually succumbed to a single-game low in the group stage of 0.7 metres per second, despite the promise evoked from England’s early flurries.
Coincidentally, Southgate is a topographic name for someone who lived near the south gate of a medieval walled city or other enclosed place and whilst England’s approach isn’t quite a backs-to-the-wall, low-block, siege mentality, it’s a name that’s somewhat apt for a man who appears unwilling to release the handbrake on England’s undoubted potential.
In Southgate’s defence, it’s conceivable that Didier Deschamps’ success with France has resulted from refusing to adopt a completely gung-ho approach despite an abundance of attacking players. Nevertheless, England’s group-stage hesitancy cannot realistically persist with tougher tests to come, coupled with the risk encouraged by a reliance on remaining impenetrable at the back.
Welcome Grealief, But Issues Mounting
Logically, the natural solution to England’s hesitance to progress at a faster pace would be to deploy one of the Premier League’s best carriers of the ball in Jack Grealish, something which looked like it would pay dividends in the early exchanges against the Czechs. Although he provided the assist for Raheem Sterling’s goal, Grealish faded in tandem with England, indicating how much influence he could potentially have on this team.
Mason Mount may come back into the fold for the Last 16, but Grealish’s productivity following his carries is just cause for persisting with the Aston Villa captain, whether the Chelsea man returns or not. Mount (87) was one of two players to create more chances in the 2020-21 Premier League than Grealish, but 37 of the 81 chances Grealish created came following a carry, almost double that of Mount (19). Those 37 chances Grealish created post-carry were also the most of anyone from Europe’s top five leagues and with only five Premier League players carrying the ball further than he did in 2020-21 (7,035m), surely an indispensable weapon for a shot-shy team that are also sluggish in possession.
No Kane, No Game
Naturally, there’s question marks as to whether Grealish would have played had Mount been available, but there are further arguments for Grealish’s inclusion. England are effectively operating like a well-oiled José Mourinho team of old currently, in the sense of being defensively impregnable, whilst remaining capable of doing just enough in attack to win.
However, whilst England are not direct when in possession, only six teams averaged more passes per sequence than England (4.5) during the group stage, which consequently means Southgate cannot adopt one of Mourinho’s few success stories from recent years of utilising Harry Kane on the counter. In 2020-21, the England captain’s passing range enabled him to become so proficient at seeking out runners in behind on the half turn, but England’s inability to employ that tactic is emphasised by Kane making more passes in the opposition half (30) than any of his teammates against Czech Republic – such is England’s tendency for ponderous, unimaginative possession in their own half of the field.
Much has been made about Kane’s uneventful performances at Euro 2020 so far, with only eight players at the tournament who started all three group-stage games having fewer touches than England’s captain (91). Regardless, Kane remains an undisputed selection, having directly contributed to more Premier League goals in 2020-21 (37) than the two players who could feasibly take his place up top combined: Marcus Rashford (20) and Dominic Calvert-Lewin (16).
Kane undoubtedly needs to see more of the ball, something which did improve with the introduction of Grealish, who against Czech Republic found Kane with twice as many passes (4) as Mount did through the opening two games combined (two). Currently the player to have successfully passed to Kane the most at this tournament is Jordan Pickford (seven), all of which came against the Czechs. In terms of passes per game, Kieran Trippier has found his former Tottenham teammate the most (four passes) and according to the rumour mill Trippier has won Southgate’s right-back lotto to start the clash with Germany.
That could suit England – and Kane particularly – in an attacking sense, with Trippier regularly adept at picking out Kane in a Tottenham shirt, whether it be with a cross or an arced ball in behind a defence, the latter of which has so far looked one of the few interesting hallmarks of England’s early performances. 10 of Trippier’s 14 league assists with Spurs were for Kane goals, so his inclusion could also prove pivotal to breaking the captain’s duck at this tournament.
Although he has become more aware defensively under Diego Simeone – making more interceptions in two seasons in La Liga (64) than he did across four Premier League seasons with Tottenham (61) – Trippier was susceptible to leaving space in behind at Spurs, something that Germany’s Robin Gosens would be primed to exploit if England were less cautious. The Atalanta man has scored an incredible 20 goals and provided 14 assists in Serie A from a marauding wing-back role across the past two seasons, numbers which are inevitably unparalleled by any defender in Europe’s top five leagues. In fact, in the England squad, only Kane (41 goals, 16 assists), Marcus Rashford (28 goals, 16 assists) and Jadon Sancho (25 goals, 27 assists) can match both of those numbers since 2019-20.
It’s poignant that Sancho’s name emerges from that discussion, as one of the players whose absence has caused frustration amongst the England faithful; with a certain Lionel Messi (55 goals, 30 assists) the only other player to record 25+ goals and 25+ assists in Europe’s top five leagues across the last two seasons, that frustration is justified. Even when reducing the bar to 20+ goals and 20+ assists, only Son Heung-Min (28 goals, 20 assists) can join Messi and Sancho on that list. Either way, Sancho belongs at an elite level.
Sterling Worth His Weight In Gold
That said, it’s still difficult to envisage Sancho finding a spot in the starting XI for the Germany tie, given Raheem Sterling’s contribution to England’s escape from Group D. Sterling’s continued selection over others has raised debate but without both his goals England simply wouldn’t be here, with Czech Republic the only other team to score multiple group-stage goals and see all those goals netted by the same player (Patrik Schick – 3/3).
Of course, England only scoring twice remains a concern, although all three matches have seen England strike the woodwork inside 11 minutes, with Sterling the latest contender to hit the frame of the goal early doors. It’s natural to speculate over whether England’s game plan would have been affected had those woodwork-bound shots found the net, or in turn whether that would have consequently altered the negative perspective surrounding England’s performances thus far.
It’s equally fascinating to envision what would happen if this England team were to fall behind and whether Southgate’s averseness to handing more minutes to the likes of Sancho and Rashford is a consequence of that, perhaps saving the pair for a scenario where England need to pull something out of the bag. England’s football has been effective so far, yet it’s difficult to imagine this England team rescuing a result in a needs-must situation.
Tournament football isn’t always designed for comebacks; there were only two come-from-behind victories during the group stage of Euro 2020, including the aforementioned Robin Gosens inspiring Germany’s 4-2 victory from behind against Portugal. The other witnessed substitutes Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard drag Belgium out of the mud against Denmark and if Gareth Southgate’s masterplan involves utilising the likes of Rashford and Sancho in similar fashion, who are we to question him?
What a Waist
International managers are prone to making questionable decisions, whether it be omitting players from the team or squad altogether, or through placing round pegs in square holes, particularly at full-back. Didier Deschamps was questioned when he channelled Tony Pulis by starting World Cup 2018 with a back four consisting entirely of players who are natural centre-backs, but no one was questioning that decision by the time France purred into the final. Similarly, no one considers Jogi Löw playing Benedikt Höwedes at left-back throughout Germany’s World Cup triumph in 2014 a risky move because of their success.
Gareth Southgate is no stranger to those traits and whilst most of his calls with England have eventually been justified, for Southgate to create a legacy where his decisions are indisputable, he must deliver on England’s potential. England’s feel-good journey at World Cup 2018 afforded everyone’s favourite waistcoat-wielder the benefit of the doubt, but patience has worn thin with England’s turgid performances that have subsequently called the manager into scrutiny once again. The overawing optimism circling England ahead of this summer has waned with each England performance, but if the Three Lions can go all the way, then each of Southgate’s decisions will be justified.
Three of the four longest serving managers at Euro 2020 have won the last three major tournaments available to European nations (Jogi Löw, Fernando Santos and Didier Deschamps), whilst odd one out Vladimir Petković has stuck around with Switzerland just for the Kent Brockman memes. With Southgate now the 10th longest serving manager at the tournament, now is the time to emulate the success of those three managers by winning this tournament and cementing his legacy.
Much like in 2018, England find themselves on the favourable side of the draw for the knockout stages, a notion that our tournament predictor supports; Germany’s encounter with England represents the Last 16 tie with the highest collective chance of either team reaching the final before a ball has been kicked in the knockout phase. At the time of writing, there’s a combined 48.7% chance that either England (30%) or Germany (18.7%) will be walking out at Wembley for the final on July 11th based on our predictor model.
Considering that potential run to the final, England’s most challenging task in getting there will plausibly be overcoming the Germans. If Southgate’s men can do that, then whisper it quietly – or scream if your household bubble is using England matches to remedy sleep deprivation – it might just be coming home.