Sports

The New Strategy That Put England Into the Euro 2020 Final

The Three Lions are now one win from their first major title since 1966.

A man with a thinnish beard yells and pumps both his fists in the air in celebration
Harry Kane celebrates after England won its semifinal match over Denmark, at Wembley Stadium in London on Wednesday. (Photo by Frank Augstein / POOL / AFP) (Photo by FRANK AUGSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) Frank Augstein/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Six matches into its Euro 2020 run, we’ve finally seen what happens when England wakes up. The results were not pretty, but they might never need to be for this England team.

Prior to Wednesday’s semifinal against Denmark, only Finland and Hungary had taken fewer shots per 90 minutes than England. Turkey peppered the goal more in its three group-stage losses than England did in its four wins and one draw up to that point. Despite putting four past Ukraine in its quarterfinal victory, only three teams that advanced out of the group stages (Croatia, Wales, and Austria) had generated fewer expected goals than England. Meanwhile, before the semifinals, only offensive juggernauts Spain and Italy had outshot Denmark. The Danes had more than doubled England’s shot total going into Wednesday.

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The trends did not last. England’s talent superiority held the Danes to just six shots, the team’s first time below 10 all tournament. England took 20 shots, its first time having more than 10 all tournament. By scoring first on Mikkel Damsgaard’s beautiful 30th-minute free kick, Denmark successfully shook England out of its complacent, game-smothering “voidball.”

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Raheem Sterling—the likely player of the tournament should England win the final—looked consistently dangerous when catching Denmark’s Andreas Christensen one-on-one. And it was Denmark’s inability to deal with forward Harry Kane dropping deep between the defense and midfield lines and playing passes in behind that led to England’s equalizer. Kane found winger Bukayo Saka behind the Danish lines, and Denmark captain Simon Kjaer blocked Saka’s cross into his own net for own goal’s 11th tally of the tournament.

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But despite having multiple options for breaking through the Danish defense, the English produced disappointingly little end product after the goal. Though the team may be world-class at game management and nullifying opposing threats, going forward it proved that the Ukraine game was an aberration. The vast majority of England’s shots were low-percentage efforts from distance or set-piece headers that Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was able to deal with relatively easily. Even when it’s trying, England’s offense is somehow less than the sum of its talented parts.

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Manager Gareth Southgate made clear that his priorities lay with control. He made just one substitution during the first 90 minutes, despite the 1–1 score and a clearly exhausted Denmark team there for the taking. With its offense failing to click, England instead hunted contact like Trae Young in the lane, searching for calls on its home turf that would bail it out and turn the game into a set piece duel. The team maybe should have been granted its penalty kick for a foul on Kane in the latter periods of the second half, but the internet’s brigade of referees was nearly unanimous that the penalty call that Sterling received in the first period of extra time was exceedingly generous. Schmeichel got about 1.5 seconds of “ball don’t lie” satisfaction when he saved Kane’s first attempt, but the rebound bounced right back to the Englishman, who made no mistake with his mulligan.

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Denmark didn’t look capable of scoring for the last 45 minutes of the game, and probably should have sent Schmeichel up as an extra target for the corner it won with five minutes left in extra time. It wasn’t going to get a better chance than that.

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The 2–1 score held. Now England have made their first major tournament final since 1966, which alone perhaps justifies Southgate’s means. He has kept his team playing at a consistently high level, even if how they go about it also keeps his players from reaching their ceilings. That’s proved difficult for experienced international managers during Euro 2020. Of the nine teams selected by oddsmakers as most likely to win the tournament before it began—England, Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, and Croatia—six of them entered the tournament with the same manager they brought to the 2018 World Cup. Spain had fired Julen Lopetegui days before that tournament kicked off in Russia for accepting the Real Madrid job. The Netherlands and Italy both failed to qualify, and so obviously had made changes.

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The vast majority of these leaders disappointed. Long-time Germany manager Joachim Löw entered the Euros as a lame duck after failing to arrest the decline that saw his team booted from the 2018 World Cup in the group stages, but the knowledge that this would be his final international tournament with Germany did not inspire his team to win one for the picker. France manager Didier Deschamps’ experiment in existential soccer—where only the individual could give meaning to his existence on the pitch and so team cohesion was unnecessary—produced stupendous highlights but also a lot of angst. Portugal’s Fernando Santos succeeded in turning his team into a machine that produced goals for Cristiano Ronaldo but few positive results, and so it’s up to the federation and the fans to determine which of those was the primary objective.

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Inseparable from the curse of World Cup winners failing to make it out of the group stages of the next tournament is the fact that the vast majority of those teams brought back the coach that won them the title. Returns tend to diminish—unless you’re 15-year veteran of the Uruguay national team Óscar Tabárez, but even his side had a disappointing quarterfinal exit from the Copa América this year.

By contrast, three of the Euro 2020 semifinalists were led by newish managers. Luis Enrique took over Spain after the World Cup and its Lopetegui drama, and he has helped ease a new generation of players into the team’s ranks. Legendary Italian manager Roberto Mancini took over Italy and guided them through their much-heralded culture shift. Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand was supposed to take over after Euro 2020 last year, but when the tournament was postponed, he came in anyway and inspired his team to the semifinals even after star Christian Eriksen’s cardiac event in the opening match.

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Of the veterans, only Southgate—and arguably Croatia’s Zlatko Dalić, whose aging team gave Spain a good scare in the Round of 16—has met expectations. Regardless of what happens in the final, he’ll almost certainly be England’s manager going into the 2022 World Cup. Other nations will likely see new blood. Former Bayern manager Hansi Flick takes over Germany in August. (Löw has denied rumors of his retirement and appears to be headed for a new career in a new town.) Deschamps’ future is uncertain after France’s disappointing exit, though if he is dismissed it seems every rumor mill on the planet has tipped French legend and former Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane to butt his way into the position. Belgium’s Roberto Martinez has received the vote of confidence, and one imagines that Belgium will remain good enough against smaller teams to prevent it from being taken away before 2022.

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Italy beat Spain on penalties Tuesday, but it also looked dour for the first time all tournament. Spain would likely have controlled play anyway, but the loss of marauding left back Leonardo Spinazzola stifled Italy’s attacks. Much of Italy’s offense still flowed through Lorenzo Insigne on the left side, but backup defender Emerson Palmieri was unable to replicate the frictionless pick-and-roll-type interchanges Spinazzola and Insigne had wreaked havoc with throughout these Euros.

Even without half of its best weapon, Italy will be the most formidable opponent that England has faced thus far in the tournament. If it wants to control the final, England might have to push itself out of its comfort zone for more than just a few stretches at a time. Otherwise Italy could seize the game by the scruff of its neck and keep England constantly backpedaling. And even if this is a new-look Italy, the game against Spain showed that you may still not want to turn any match with the Italians into a cynical contest of working the refs. The shape of the final will likely be determined by who feels more comfortable pushing the throttle. Odds are it won’t be Southgate. Will the void be enough to contain the rejuvenated Italians?

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