In the end, it wasn’t to be a repeat of 1966.
For all the nostalgia that accompanied England’s participation in the Euro 2020 final, the first that nation had reached in a major tournament in 55 years—a game held, like the 1966 World Cup Final, in London at Wembley Stadium—it turned out the model was something much more recent, and much less favorable for the hosts.
The last time England met Italy at the Euros was 2012, in that tournament’s quarterfinals, when two loaded sides kept each other scoreless through regulation and extra time. England started well in the ensuing shootout, but then a shank off the crossbar and a dominant goalkeeper named Gianluigi sealed the game for Italy.
For a little while during the rematch this year, it looked as if it might end differently. This time Italy endured an early English goal, but fought back after halftime in a similarly nervy, uninspiring contest. Just as it advanced on that day, here Italy won the 2020 European Championship in the shootout—after England knocked three consecutive penalties either off the post or into the hands of a dominant goalkeeper named Gianluigi.
The first obvious question—why did those guys who missed take those penalties for England?—is mostly a futile one; for us at home, there is no escaping outcome bias in this particular bit of Monday morning centerbacking. But there is no doubt that sending out three young Black players—Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka—to take the most pressure-packed kicks and have them all miss feels especially fraught in a nation that booed the players for taking a knee opposing racism at the beginning of the tournament, that has a segment of the media that has a history of racist dog whistling about everything from the tattoos to the real estate purchases of young Black soccer stars. The English Football Association has already put out a statement condemning racist abuse of the trio. (Did I mention that the two guys who missed their penalties in 2012, Ashley Young and Ashley Cole, were also Black players who have endured fan racism?) The good news is that there is a segment of the population that realizes the danger here, and has already responded with an overflow of support and gratitude, as well as reminders of the young players’ charity work and career accomplishments. The bad news is that this is the sort of thing that could fester in the memories of small-minded fans for years after whatever cheap-shot headline gets printed Monday morning.
Worst of all for England is that it didn’t have to come to this. Most maddening, and most emblematic of what England manager Gareth Southgate has done with his team all tournament, is that the manager subbed on both Rashford and Sancho with mere minutes left in the contest, putting them in a position to take their penalties rather than try to win the game with their considerable talent. The real lesson is not the penalty failure but everything that led up to it: England’s insistence on keeping the Italians hanging around, and then its refusal to attempt to pull away from them again.
England took the lead after less than two minutes, uncharacteristically flooding the Italian box with bodies and allowing right wingback Kieran Trippier to find his counterpart on the opposite side, Luke Shaw, wide open for the opener.
But after allowing this one flight of attacking fancy, Southgate, England’s overcoated Daedalus, quickly coaxed his team back into its shell. He never seemed to realize that the danger might be just as great if you fly too low. Sometimes the initiative is there to be seized, not just guided into its little box where it can’t hurt anybody.
England managed just one other shot on target in the remaining 118 minutes after their goal, despite thoroughly outplaying the Italians in the first half. Rather than press the advantage, Southgate retained his version of an old Italian tactic—popular in Serie A in the 1990s when Italian teams had the most money to spend—that consisted of building a stable platform of defenders and conservative midfielders over whom a trio of talented attackers could freestyle on. But it was soon apparent that sending forward three guys at a time—and sometimes four, as a treat—to probe around the edges of the Italian box was not the best way to trouble Italy’s experienced defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. It was as if in that one successful foray to the goal, Southgate expended his entire appetite for risk.
It is a testament to the quality of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling that England sometimes managed to spark some danger anyway in these situations. Early on Italy had no answers for Kane dropping deep and quarterbacking England’s offense, which would seem to indicate that Mancini maybe hadn’t watched any of England’s games this tournament, or indeed, any of Harry Kane’s ever. The forward was devastating between the lines, and when he couldn’t find a dangerous pass, he’d contort his body into the paths of enough swinging Italian feet to permit himself to topple like the overextended Jenga tower he sometimes resembles. Sterling was quieter, but he may have been the best player in the entire tournament, even if Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma took home the official award.
With so little forward momentum to oppose them, Italy took control of the second half and only relinquished its advantage for small fragments of time, most notably after its best player on the night, Federico Chiesa, left the game around the 80th minute. That it took this long for someone to expose England’s central flaw, and that it nearly won the tournament anyway, reflects well on Southgate’s players and their buy-in to his methods. That he never came up with a solution for this obvious problem, that he so prioritized his particular version of order that he subbed two of the best young attackers in the world on just to take penalties, is a dismal failure on the part of the manager.
Southgate tried to turn soccer into a solved game, attempting to turn each England match into an exercise akin to playing a computer in tic-tac-toe, leaving opponents going in circles doing nothing endlessly until finally they get bored enough to make a mistake. This isn’t an uncommon way to attempt to win soccer games, but Southgate’s roster—with dynamos Sancho, Rashford, Jack Grealish, and Jude Bellingham—had the potential to be so much more, to overwhelm the opposition with their creativity and skill. Instead, all tournament England emulated Floyd Mayweather, doing just enough on offense to win and deflecting everything else with its own Philly Shell. It’s perhaps no surprise that there was a large contingent of neutral fans who wanted to see someone land the big one on England, to do something to jolt them out of this stupor. In that sense, those neutral fans were disappointed. It was not a great game, and England never did wake up—but Italy at least managed to do enough to win on the scorecards. Barely.
Italy did not live up to the promise of its best self from earlier in the tournament without its breakout tournament star Leonardo Spinazzola; his replacement, Emerson, was more foolish than consistent. Though Roberto Mancini’s team came into the game once England began to afford more space to its midfield passers, it was rarely able to make the final play that would seriously trouble Jordan Pickford’s goal. Still, Southgate’s gamble on a game of low-margins failed him when the equalizer came from a bouncing, scrambling melee off a corner kick, one that featured a potential Italian penalty and a Pickford save off the post before Bonucci got to the rebound first to finish from point-blank range.
Given the alternative, Italy’s title counts as a victory for attacking, exciting soccer. France won the World Cup in 2018 in large part by defending deep and compressing its springs until it had built up enough force to send Kylian Mbappé hurtling toward the goal at faster and faster speeds. For England to do something similar with less exciting stars (sorry, Raheem) would have confirmed a trend: The best way to win at the international level is to minimize the chances your team has to take.
Now at least there’s a counterpoint, albeit it something of a weak one after the Italian struggles in its semifinal against Spain and Sunday. That this rebuttal comes from Italy—traditionally the sturdiest bastion of pragmatic, defensive soccer on the continent—is a nice touch. Perhaps other nations will revisit what they think is possible on the field, and Italy’s conversion under Mancini will spark a real “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change,” transformation in international soccer identities. Perhaps Southgate will take note, and see what he might do with all the talent at his disposal when he sets them up to really soar.