England are through. They seem in control. Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish were brilliant. Harry Maguire didn’t even have to win a header.
Oh, don’t forget those player ratings.
1) It has not been a perfect group stage, although history suggests that is no bad thing. England have laboured and toiled at times in each of their three games at Euro 2020 thus far, with many legitimate grievances aired amid the panic and consternation. Eleven teams have scored more goals and North Macedonia are among those to manage as many. Rafael Benitez rolls out the ‘short blanket’ analogy every few months and Gareth Southgate has absolutely struggled to keep England’s head and feet warm simultaneously.
But the manager and his players have certainly earned a good night’s sleep. Modest opponents have provided different challenges yet each have been navigated to varying degrees of success: a stroll against Croatia, a stumble against Scotland and a saunter against the Czech Republic is a respectable return without raising expectations or lowering the bar of what is acceptable in this tournament. England have not burst out of the blocks but they are in the middle of the qualifying pack, which is difficult to interpret for those who see things only in black and white but is perfectly fine for people capable of perceiving grey areas and middle ground.
The array of attacking talent Southgate has at his disposal will hopefully click some point soon – and there were many signs pointing towards that in this hard-fought win. But England had only ever kept three clean sheets in a major tournament group stage once before this summer. They are far from lifting the trophy on home soil as in 1966 but that does underline how rare it is for this country to look so stable and solid on such a platform.
2) The main hope is that the Scotland match was the exception as England have otherwise managed and controlled games and opponents exceptionally well. They were patient in their approach against Croatia and prevented them from having a single shot on target after Raheem Sterling’s opener. His goal against the Czech Republic came more than 40 minutes earlier but England still defended that lead diligently and Jordan Pickford had only one save – an excellent one – to make. The counterpoint is that the ‘hosts’ had a single attempt of their own after going ahead and Southgate does leave himself open to criticism on that front after pledging “to entertain where we possibly can” in the build-up. There is work to be done in terms of leaving fans in the stadium and at home enthralled but there is plenty to be said about the lack of nerves and anxiety engendered by watching this team defend a 1-0 advantage at a major tournament. It is very un-England.
3) It is fortunate that such calm is imbued throughout this squad because the noise outside that bubble must be deafening at times. The volume is never turned up higher than when the line-up is announced and Southgate has somehow failed to name everyone’s favourite 15 players in his starting XI. Tuesday evening was no different and Bukayo Saka was next in the firing line.
There was genuine dismay and trepidation at his inclusion. Some soon pointed out that Saka had tormented the Czech left-back Jan Boril when Arsenal thrashed Slavia Prague 4-0 in April, to such an extent that the 30-year-old was substituted at half-time. It was almost as if Southgate and his team might research the opposition and specifically tailor their approach accordingly. Weird.
But beyond that there was a bizarre discourse surrounding Saka that was disrespectful before the game and proven to be downright wrong for every minute until his substitution to rousing applause towards the end. A 19-year-old who can play in numerous positions, is homegrown, hard-working, skilful, puts the team before the individual and has almost 100 first-team appearances for a member of the Premier League elite would ordinarily be cherished. But because Saka plays for – leads or inspires is perhaps more appropriate – for Arsenal, some think he should be scoffed at.
4) It shouldn’t have needed a man-of-the-match performance – his third in three England starts – to prove those critics as utterly misguided but Saka decided to deliver one anyway. He epitomised the difference between this and England’s display against Scotland with his positive but focused running and fearlessness in possession. The Arsenal talisman was responsible for one-third of the entire game’s dribbles, completing at least twice as many (5) as the next closest player (Marcus Rashford, 2).
Southgate was asked before this game about the absence of Jadon Sancho, explaining that England’s squad was full of young players “experiencing a big tournament for the first time” and thus “we are realistic about our expectations of them as individuals”. The Borussia Dortmund winger was given five minutes to respond but Saka had actually proven the folly of his manager’s words long before then. Inexperience is not necessarily a negative thing and a teenager making his first start at an international tournament, uninhibited by the past and with an incredibly bright future, made that point.
5) Sancho will hopefully feature more now Southgate has introduced him to the main fold, although that might well have been to placate the masses with scraps. Seven minutes was no time whatsoever to make his mark in a game that England had almost entirely suffocated by that point – although he is yet to misplace a pass at a major international tournament, so that’s something.
The ‘inexperience’ argument does not particularly translate when discussing a player with more than 20 career Champions League appearances and 89 Bundesliga goals or assists to his name by age 21. Southgate clearly has no issue with players plying their club trade abroad, as Kieran Trippier and Jude Bellingham attest. So it does seem as though there is a specific issue keeping Sancho out of the frame. It is frustrating to see him starved of a fair crack but then Southgate must have his reasons and frankly it is difficult to pick holes in such decisions when the team is faring well.
6) One possible explanation that has been mooted elsewhere is Sancho’s work off the ball. There might be some credence to that as Southgate clearly demands defensive application from even his most creative players. About a quarter of an hour into the first half it was notable that when Saka was seemingly fouled on the edge of the area but the referee did not give a free-kick, the Czechs launched a counter-attack and Jack Grealish sprinted back to slow them down. Raheem Sterling almost immediately joined him and they combined to stamp out the threat and even win a throw-in. Even when Rashford came on for the final half an hour he tracked back tirelessly. Many ridicule the suggestion that managers might not pick even the most talented flair players if they do not indulge in such dirty work, but it is clearly an important facet of the team game for Southgate and most others.
7) A final point on Sancho: the pivot from Grealish clamour to Sancho outrage was seamlessly orchestrated shortly after the Scotland game to ignore Grealish actually starting this match while ensuring there is always a point of focused anger over team selection. The level of choreography involved was genuinely quite impressive, if also incredibly tiresome. There were a couple of missteps in the second fixture but Southgate was justified in his calls in the starting line-up and from the bench once again and Michael Lee Aday could tell you that two out of three really ain’t bad.
8) As early as the second minute it was evident that this game would be a step up from the last. The tempo was quicker; the patterns more clear. Luke Shaw clipped a wonderful ball over the top to Sterling, who lobbed the onrushing Tomas Vaclik from a tight angle and hit the post.
Those were the runs Sterling had made for fun against Croatia, but Scotland had ably snuffed out. With the full-backs overlapping far more frequently, Kalvin Phillips dropping to make a defensive three when they did and actual dribblers receiving the ball deeper with space to turn and run into, England had identified their main problems in that insipid goalless draw and rectified them instantly.
9) The goal soon came and Saka was the architect. He collected the ball midway in England’s half and drove forward, eventually playing it out wide to Phillips and continuing into the box for the one-two. One cross too deep followed by a perfect delivery and they were ahead through Sterling’s header.
Grealish did brilliantly considering he was on his weaker foot with two defenders inside stopping him from cutting onto his stronger right. His cross was deflected slightly off Vladimir Coufal but that should take nothing away from the Aston Villa captain.
Before the game ITV ran an interview package with Grealish and Gabriel Clarke. Asked to name his weakness, the player resisted responding with ‘eczema’ and instead said it was “stubbornness”, offering this explanation:
“I had it one time this season when I played against West Ham and they played two right backs against me, and my manager said to me after, he says, ‘Why didn’t you just move to the other side of the pitch and cause a problem or go inside?’ I went, ‘Nah, because then I feel like they’ve won’. And I got an assist. Sometimes I need to think what’s best for the team and not to be too stubborn.”
The end of that anecdote is a little too ‘I work too hard, I care too much, and sometimes I can be too invested in my job,’ and it does not reflect particularly well on Dean Smith, come to think of it. But it does emphasise that Grealish is an intelligent player who is learning how to answer increasingly difficult questions by drawing on his past experiences. That is worth noting when his caricature is of someone who dives at the earliest available opportunity and only ever acts on instinct.
10) Harry Kane had his best game of the tournament, which is damning with the faintest praise possible. There were a couple of moments where it looked as though he was running through treacle-covered transfer gossip columns but on the whole he was a better focal point than against Croatia and Scotland. His most telling contribution was quickly forgotten in the celebration of the goal: when he controlled Grealish’s loose header with his back to goal and under pressure from a couple of defenders, before allowing him to get back onside so he could return the pass. A few touches later and England were in front but it was the captain’s hold-up play that made it possible.
11) With that said, he absolutely has to centre it for Sterling more often when the pair find themselves in the specific circumstance of being through on goal against one opposition defender with Kane on the left and Sterling on the right. That should be the only training drill every day for the next week.
12) Had that gone in – and it really ought to have – then it would have added another layer of gloss to a composed team performance. The pass from Harry Maguire to create the chance was excellent and the centre-half impressed on his return to the side.
Tyrone Mings had actually put the Manchester United captain in a tough situation with two largely faultless displays, but Maguire stepped up to the plate and offered slightly more quality in possession. The slide-rule pass for Kane was wonderful and the longer raking ball over the top that Shaw chested down in the first half was tremendous. His range really is underrated and it can only be positive that England have made four defensive changes in three games and are still yet to concede. That is testament to their unity, concentration and balance.
13) It was no straightforward shift at the back, either. Pickford kept out a decent Tomas Holes effort in the first half, Shaw stuck his head in the way of a dangerous cross and received a kick to the head for his troubles and Soucek fired just wide from the subsequent loose ball. Shaw was caught out of position a couple of times, as was the accepted sacrifice for a little more full-back adventure. Kyle Walker often left huge gaps behind him on the right in the first half that the Czechs failed to exploit. Saka was one of those who covered impeccably as England defended as a unit.
Maguire and John Stones have at least one xM (expected mistake) between them per game but they actually looked like a serene partnership. The strangest statistic of all is that the former did not compete for a single header. Maguire won an aerial duel in each of his Premier League appearances this season bar one: also weirdly against Burnley in April. Yet in his first game of the Euros he didn’t so much as jostle for position with Soucek’s elbows. That’s how comfortable England were. There was no bombardment. They just cruised through.
14) Sterling continues to justify Southgate‘s faith. The forward had a poor season by his standards for Manchester City but international form must also be taken into account and he had 23 goals or assists in 19 appearances since the 2018 World Cup heading into this game. Wayne Rooney remains the penultimate England player to score at a European Championship.
The argument about taking one’s previous service to their country into account stands for Pickford, too. Many would have preferred him not to start this tournament and perhaps injuries to Nick Pope and Dean Henderson played in his favour in that regard. But he has never let England down and this has been a stellar summer thus far for the Everton keeper.
15) It gets no easier from here, not just in terms of potential opposition but the fact that every action and reaction is magnified as the safety net of a group stage is removed. England will have to correct course mid-match if anything goes wrong and it remains to be seen whether Southgate and these players are capable of that.
Many elements of his team picks itself: the keeper, two centre-halves, left-back, two central midfielders, left-winger and centre-forward will surely start in the last 16. But the other three positions are tantalisingly open and it seems like forever since that could be said of England in a positive tone during a major tournament.
Walker has done little to stamp his authority on the right but there is not much between Trippier and Reece James. Mason Mount will presumably take his midfield place back when Public Health England are satisfied, although Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham might have something to say about that. And then Rashford, Sancho and Phil Foden cannot possibly have misread Saka’s resounding statement on Tuesday evening.
After all that comes the call as to where Grealish plays, because few will accept him dropping back to the bench now.
Only one thing is certain: whatever decisions Southgate makes, they will be absolutely wrong even if they turn out to be very much right.
16) The ITV curse is in the mud. We move.