Friday, October 22

Whatever happens at Euro 2020, this England team is unlike any other | England

We are not creative enough. We are not positive enough. We will keep getting bad results, bad results, bad results.

Something interesting about years of pain and all those almost so close. When the lyrics for the great and seemingly inexhaustible Three Lions were written, England had played just seven tournaments since winning the World Cup. Only one of those had been almost a mistake.

That history of glorious and frustrated power has always been a bit contrived. It is football’s version of another delicious English vice, reverence for beautiful failure, faded glory, lost Albions.

Sometimes it feels like more creative energy has been invested in deconstructions of why England is not the best, than in making sure they are good enough. We were always almost full, always so sweet. And nothing has been whiter than the Queen’s white gloves.

Except it seems like other stories are possible now as well. Best part of England’s brilliant 4-0 loss to Ukraine – or as they should be known now Ukraine only – is that it had no nuances, no shadows, or alternative history.

England ruled in the simplest way. They won the quarterfinals without alarms, killing the match in an hour. And yes, it was only Ukraine, but it is just another kind of English exceptionalism to pretend that these results are below consideration, that only Brazil 1970 will actually do it. Other people are also in this room. And England does not always beat its lower assumptions.

In Rome they won with something close to total control, with nothing to declare other than impressive team play and a clean shot. We can say it now that the sowing has been justified, a level of achievement has been reached on par. This England really is unlike any other England.

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Not necessarily more talented, or destined for greater glory. Denmark is quite capable of winning at Wembley on Wednesday, as it did last October. But something has changed. The air feels clearer. And whatever happens from here, this is already the best England tournament performance of the modern era.

It’s a pretty low bar. To get to a Euro 96 semi-final, all England had to do was draw 0-0 with pre-good Spain and then watch their opponents shoot some bad penalties. Unlike the 1990 and 2018 World Cups, this time they haven’t even conceded a goal. They have won two knockout games 6-0 on aggregate, with the feeling at all times of a very clear design at stake. This is England: not like England.

It’s the kind of change, tactical and textural, that seemed remote not long ago. England are dinosaurs, and not agile, raptor-like dinosaurs, but a clumsy diplodocus. Go back nine years to Kiev 2012 and England came out of the European Championship looking like a team that had appeared in a chess match armed with a handful of stones.

An old, slow and very smart footballer made more passes than all of Roy Hodgson’s midfield. The defeat came on penalties against Italy, but this was a disgrace, a group of players frightened by the basic unit of the game, the ball.

Andrea Pirlo playing against England in Euro 2012
Andrea Pirlo completed 131 passes against England in Euro 2012. Photograph: Anthony Devlin / PA

And yet, in Rome, Harry Maguire and John Stones controlled the pace. Together they completed 183 of 191 passes, only 15 of them long, 10 of which were successful. It didn’t seem forced or imitative. This mainly comes from club football. But a light has been let in.

Meanwhile, England is terrified. England is stagnant. We remember 2006 and an enormously talented team chained to the unchanging 4-4-2, and in a panic at the idea of ​​fluidity in positions or personnel.

Fast forward and in Rome, Jadon Sancho was exactly the right choice in exactly the right game. It doesn’t matter that Sancho has had a start in the last six weeks. It was a decision based on good training and the conviction that Sancho would fit in happily and fulfill his mission. Terrified England dribbled 12 in a knockout game, led by Sancho with four.

England is also unpleasant. Go back to the contortions of 2010, a team that seemed to hate being a team, never being fully dressed without frowning. It’s good to see your own fans booing you. A small part of the England fans still boo the team. But they are booed for being nice. It feels like progress.

Right now, even people outside of England like or don’t care about England. Andriy Shevchenko, a haggard figure at the end but still with the air of a handsome feudal duke whose weekends are spent fighting duels and playing the harp, was generous in his praise. Gareth Southgate is admired in Europe, and even now by some of those who have already retreated deep into the cave of anti-Garethism.

There were other notes of progress in Rome. England, yes, England, brought in an 18-year-old to help close the game with 64 minutes to go. There were rest periods built into the plan, spells in which they played “dry.” A tournament is an ordeal. England, who are relentless, who must be exhausted, are happy to sit down now as well.

And maybe now they can enjoy that Wembley semi-final a little bit. The best part about this iteration of England is its unpretentiousness. England knows they are good; but, for now, good enough.

Denmark will be a much closer game against stronger opponents. And even in Rome there were signs of vulnerability on England’s back four. Southgate can go back to a three- or five-man defense and try to win by taking the air out of the game.

It can be tearful and tense, ready to be safely tucked away in the comfortably sad archives of English football history. But however the game plays out, this England of Gareth, Raheem and Harry, terror of confused Tory MPs and bruised opposition midfielders alike, has already moved the story forward.

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