Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho had played less than 180 minutes of football in the entire tournament before they came on in the 120th minute last night. For four straight weeks, Gareth Southgate refused to acknowledge their presence, and all of a sudden, in the hour of need, he put them on and expected them to win the game.
Bukayo Saka, with zero experience of such shoot-outs even at the club level, was asked to convert from the most important kick of the entire tournament. The burden of expectations of an entire country was put on the shoulders of a 19-year-old.
One of England’s most experienced players, Jordan Henderson, was taken off right before the penalty shoot-out.
Aston Villa’s go-to man, Jack Grealish, was reduced to a mere spectator as the entire drama unfolded.
The last six matches made me believe in each and every decision that Gareth Southgate took over the course of the 120 minutes last night (yes, silly me, right?). However, the way Southgate decided to utilise his players in the shoot-out has left me with major questions over the future of this English side.
Perhaps, one can add Euro 2020 to the list of other heartbreaks – 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012. Reaching the finals for the first time in 55 years is a commendable achievement, but as for me, I’m definitely proud of it but not quite in a position to celebrate it.
No, don’t get me wrong.
The players were amazing throughout; each and every one of them gave their 100% in each and every match. Some were excellent, and the others – not so, but not for a single second will I question their commitment towards the cause.
Unlike the World Cup 2018, The Three Lions were much more brave and courageous in terms of their overall play. Defensively, we learnt a lot from our past experiences, and there’s no denying that England had the best defence in the entire tournament – with 5 clean sheets and just one open play goal conceded across seven matches.
However, in the end, we lost, but I’m more disappointed with the decisions that led to the loss – some fatal tactical decisions, mistakes that could have been avoided if Southgate had put some thoughts behind the decisions he took.
Roberto Mancini won the title with not-so-known faces while playing some beautiful, eye-catching football at the same time. On the other hand, Southgate opted for a more conservative 3-5-2 (rather 3-4-2-1) formation in the finals. Not that it didn’t have the potential to work out, but the team kept pushing towards their own goal at every chance they had. The back seven (five defenders and two defensive midfielders) was set up to sit deep for as long as they were in the lead. The counter-attacks never quite materialised.
As much as I love appreciating Mason Mount, the 22-year-old midfielder failed to link up the play on numerous occasions last night. It’s quite difficult to comprehend why he stayed on the pitch for so long. Perhaps, I wonder if either of Marcus Rashford or Jadon Sancho could have been brought on for Mount a bit earlier in the game, just to let the nerves settle in.
Penalties are all about self-belief, and once you deplete that of a player by constantly ignoring them, you cannot expect them to turn up on an occasion as big as the Euro finals.
It baffles me how someone like Gareth Southgate failed to plan for the climax, given that he himself missed a penalty 25 years ago in the old Wembley.
The second-half heroics against Germany in the round of 16.
The thumping 4-0 victory over Ukraine in the quarter-finals.
The 2-1 win over Denmark.
A series of remarkable victories en route to the finals made me believe in the gaffer’s approach. However, with the enormous amount of attacking talent he had at his disposal, the nation certainly expected more entertaining and exciting football from his side. Somewhere or the other, I feel that a team that is more than capable of putting even the toughest of oppositions on the back foot was made to sit back and defend narrow 1-0 leads for the majority of the campaign.
Marquee players like Harry Kane and Jack Grealish could have offered so much more in attacking terms if they were put to proper use. In fact, the latter one was hardly given a chance even after his match-winning performance against Germany.
It’s like owning a Ferrari and not knowing how to drive it.
But above all, his extra-time substitutions will be a point of debate in the years to come.
Nonetheless, win or lose, it’s a team game, and whatever happens, everyone has got to take an equal share of the blame at the end of the day. I could notice Southgate’s jaw trembling during the post-match interview, but the way he put his views despite being heartbroken had me in tears all over again.
“What they have to know is none of them are on their own. We win and lose as a team. Penalties are my call. We worked in training. It’s not down to the players. Tonight it hasn’t gone for us. We know they were the best takers we had left on the pitch. Of course, it’s going to be heartbreaking for the boys but they are not to blame for that.”
It was an amazing run, a memorable one. Penalties are harsh, and those who missed it – and even those who didn’t – will bounce back stronger. We’ve come so far as a team, but there’s still a lot of work to be done ahead of the World Cup 2022. Together, we shall defeat the devils that still remain.