In the end, there was no escape from the story. Twenty-five years later, England’s past caught up with them. There was no fairy tale ending. No redemption.
This time it was Bukayo Saka who felt the ground drop under his feet, who buried his face in his jersey, who experienced the agony Gareth Southgate felt when he missed the vital penalty spot against Germany during Euro 96.
Maybe it had to be that way. England have broken down so many barriers under Southgate, broken down so many taboos, but this was a hurdle too far.
A team that has brought so much joy to the country for the past month could not find the answer when the heat was really on, succumbing in the end to the pointy, defiant and talented Italy of Roberto Mancini.
There will be talk of bad luck. It will be impossible not to look back at Marcus Rashford’s penalty kissing the post when England were ahead on penalties. However, there will also be difficult questions to answer in the cold light of day.
For Southgate, a first appearance in a grand final since the 1966 World Cup will not be enough. There can be no excuses, no attempt to paint penalties as a lottery when the harsh reality is that England were too cautious, too slow to make changes and too willing to sit on their slim lead as Italy increased the pressure in the second half.
Control has been England’s theme throughout the tournament. Here, however, their attempts at containment failed. The harsh reality is that England didn’t do enough after Luke Shaw made them dream that all those years of pain were about to come to an end. Damn, they found a way to neutralize Harry Kane, without putting their forward in positions where he could really hurt Italy.
It was an oversight by Southgate. Kane didn’t take a good look at Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s goalkeeper, until he stepped in to shoot England’s first penalty home. Raheem Sterling rarely had room to run behind and Italy’s defenders couldn’t believe their luck. They sailed for most of the game and Southgate didn’t respond, waiting until Italy had leveled off before giving his team more options on the ball by bringing in Saka.
For critics of Southgate, it will be tempting to criticize how he has used England’s creative talents throughout the tournament, often keeping Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden behind. Reverting to three behind was a gamble that left Kane and Sterling too isolated. He became a back seven too easily, despite the fact that England was originally a force of nature.
England’s goal was a side-to-side affair, triggered by Kane’s deep fall to extend the play to Kieran Trippier down the right. The cross went deep and Shaw arrived, picking a good moment to volley on his first England goal.
Southgate sensed that a plan was brewing. England was tense and combative, suffocating Italy and forcing it into harmless areas. However, at the other end, Southgate’s forwards struggled. Sterling, moved to the right, didn’t get enough chances to test Giorgio Chiellini’s pace. Mason Mount was pressing the ball instead of dictating the play. Kane passed the 120 minutes without taking a significant shot.
Around half an hour, Italy put together a long and sustained passing spell, cleverly rotating the ball, finding the angles, making the England midfielders run. It was a bad sign. It started to feel like Moscow, mind going back to Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic taking the game away from England when they lost their World Cup semi-final to Croatia in 2018.
This felt too familiar. It happened when Frenkie De Jong dominated England in their Nations League semi-final defeat to the Netherlands two years ago and there were long periods when Italian midfielders were too soft for England, although entrepreneur Declan Rice tried to hold out alongside Kalvin Phillips. .
The longer it dragged on, the longer Jorginho and Marco Verratti kept the ball away from Rice and Phillips, the more England rushed on their punts, the more likely the draw was. So it turned out. England went too deep and they paid for it, the messy goal when it came, Leonardo Bonucci attacking from a corner.
Only then did Southgate react, bringing in Saka for Trippier and trading to 4-3-3. However, England remained hasty and imprecise, creating few opportunities, Kane remained a peripheral figure. Italy looked stronger, closing in on a winner a couple of times. Penalties felt like England’s best chance and Southgate adjusted accordingly, bringing in Rashford and Jadon Sancho with seconds marking time in extra time.
However, England could not control the variables. They couldn’t escape their past. They will return, contenders at the World Cup next year, but Southgate will always wonder if he could have been bolder.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism