LONDON — England’s biggest demon still remains.
Gareth Southgate and his players have done so much this summer to redefine the country’s relationship with major tournaments, but the biggest psychological ghost at the feast has wrecked another dream: The Three Lions lost another a penalty shootout.
Chalk up another year of hurt. Southgate picked the second youngest squad at these finals in part because they were unburdened by the weight of history, but Euro 2020 now sits alongside 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012 in the list of tournament exits by the cruellest possible method.
England have won just 22% of their major tournament shootouts (two of nine), the lowest ratio of any European nation to have been involved in three or more.
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Southgate had done plenty to banish the fear of spot-kicks in 2018, masterminding their first ever World Cup shootout success at the last-16 stage against Colombia. There was a conviction and a logic in their methodology that night which wasn’t quite replicated at Wembley, as Italy edged an error-strewn shootout 3-2 after 120 minutes which ended 1-1.
Bukayo Saka was inconsolable after his decisive miss but, aged 19 in his ninth international, it was the first penalty of his senior career.
Marcus Rashford is likely to be just days away from surgery on a shoulder problem which hampered his contribution during the tournament, restricting him to just 84 minutes. As a 120th-minute substitute, he touched the ball twice in extra-time before striking his penalty against Gianluigi Donnarumma’s right-hand post.
Jadon Sancho was left out of the matchday squad altogether for England’s opening game against Croatia, started just once all tournament but ended up entering the fray alongside Rashford, seeing his penalty also saved by Donnarumma. Like Rashford, Sancho touched the ball just twice beforehand, ending the game aa a makeshift full-back.
There is nobody better qualified than Southgate to comfort that trio after such individual disappointment, given his own penalty miss 25 years earlier in the old Wembley.
But, equally, for someone so studious and detailed in his preparation, this felt like a ragged climax to a game in which England also ceded the early initiative.
No doubt informed by his own personal experience, Southgate sought to deflect any blame away from those who missed.
“What they have to know is none of them are on their own,” said Southgate. “We win and lose as a team and the penalty takers are my call. We’ve worked on them in training, that’s my decision. That’s not down to the players.
“Tonight it hasn’t gone for us but we know they were the best takers we had left on the pitch. We tried to get those players onto the pitch. We’d already had to take a couple off during the game itself. So yeah of course it is going to be heart-breaking for the boys but they are not to blame for that, that’s my call as a coach.
“That’s a process we’ve been through. We’ve tracked what they’ve done with their clubs over a long period of time and then what they’ve shown in training as well.
“That’s the process that worked for us in Russia and in the Nations League [beating Switzerland in 2019]. Tonight it hasn’t quite worked.”
England came flying out of the blocks here in a raucous atmosphere made all the more chaotic by hundreds of fans storming the stadium and forcing their way into seats without match tickets.
Thousands of fans gathered along Wembley Way all day. An alchemy of lager, hash and patriotic optimism permeated the air. Some of those perhaps emboldened by their all-day session overwhelmed stewards by kicking down barriers or accessing the concourse through disabled entrances to overwhelm stewards in certain sections.
The noise at kick-off was deafening yet elevated further as Southgate’s tactical surprise of introducing Kieran Trippier for Saka and switching to a 3-4-3 shape yielded dividends inside two minutes.
Harry Kane fed Trippier who crossed to the back post where England’s other wing-back, Luke Shaw, volleyed them in front. It was the Manchester United defender’s first England goal and the quickest ever scored in a Euros final.
The combination of being overloaded in the stands and on the wings threatened to overwhelm Italy. England dominated the first half an hour but Italy began to grow in influence, Marco Verratti in particular started to get a foothold in midfield.
The balance shifted even further after half-time as Roberto Mancini introduced Bryan Cristante and Domenico Berardi, rotating his forward players with Lorenzo Insigne operating in part as a false nine.
England struggled thereafter. When reflecting on England’s exit from the 2018 World Cup with an extra-time semifinal defeat to Croatia, Southgate cited a lack of bravery with the ball after going ahead, fatigue and his own culpability in being conservative with his substitutions.
For all the undeniable progress England have made, the same issues befell them here. Southgate changed England’s shape by introducing Saka for Trippier. Jordan Henderson replaced the excellent Declan Rice.
Yet England were increasingly hanging on. Mason Mount had a good tournament but he was lucky to survive into extra-time, eventually being replaced in the 99th minute for Jack Grealish.
Yet, just as Croatia began to monopolise possession back in 2018, Italy continued to look the more likely winner until it was left to penalties to settle a Euros final for only the second time in history.
This England team now have their own history to overcome. Consolation will come in their first final appearance for 55 years, a cathartic win over Germany, a barrier-breaking semifinal win over Denmark and reconnecting with the fans while making a positive impact on issues that transcend sport.
“They’ve done more than any other team in the last 50 or so years,” added Southgate. “So the players should be incredibly proud of what they’ve done. Tonight it hard of course, to get so close you know those opportunities in your life are incredibly rare.”
The FA have long targeted next year’s World Cup in Qatar as the tournament England should be winning. Southgate claimed on Friday that he is not the finished article despite leading his team with integrity throughout. England are closer than they have been for some time. But some demons still remain.
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