I ended last week’s post by suggesting that it was now or never for England at a major tournament, that: “If the Three Lions are ever to truly blossom into the top team we all hope they can be, then beating the Germans, even on penalties, feels like an essential step on the way. We can only hope that for once the players rise to the occasions, they shake off the inhibitions that always seem to hamper their play and that cruel luck has no part to play this time around. The country certainly needs the lift!”
I wrote that in hope rather than expectation but low and behold, even if Gareth Southgate’s men didn’t fully find a way to shake off their inhibitions, they did find a way to win the match and in regulation time without the need for luck or a controversial decision. Maybe the new normal means we can expect a new England football team to follow, one that genuinely competes at tournaments or (whisper it very quietly) maybe even might win one from time to time?
Despite some compelling football to provide some form of distraction, especially on the Monday evening with two gripping games that were full of excitement and drama, fourteen(!) goals, a penalty shootout and the elimination of one of the outright favourites, the build-up to Tuesday evening’s game would have been familiar to all England fans. Nerves, tension, an inability to concentrate on anything for too long all day due to anticipation and excitement that this might be the time that England actually do it, coupled with the downright fear that they probably won’t and will end up rueing bad luck or a penalty shootout or indeed both.
I have gone through a process watching England over the years, I used to love it when I was younger but the traumas of 1986, 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004 and 2006 were so tough to take that I gave up on them. I still watched all the tournaments that they were involved in but I did so with a sense of detachment, a comfort mechanism that if I didn’t invest in hoping they would finally come good, it wouldn’t hurt so much when they ultimately blew it once again. Then the summer of 2018 happened and England’s journey to the semi-final in Russia under Gareth Southgate got us all back on board again
When I walked into my local pub, with my boss’ permission to finish early I hasten to add, at 4pm on the dot, I realised I wasn’t alone to say the least. The overwhelming mood was one of nervous anticipation, but not of a positive nature. Instead the general feeling was apprehension as we all thought we were in for yet another rollercoaster of emotions with unanticipated twists and turns that would somehow ensure that the Germans, despite the team being one of the poorest in their history, would go through and we would be left licking our wounds and wondering what might have been once again.
While England have seemingly played within themselves so far this tournament Southgate has, if nothing else, created a solid defensive base on which to build, the problem seems to have been the difficulty in deciding which was the best combination of similarly skilled creative attacking players to deploy to get the best out of the seemingly knackered Harry Kane. While they topped the group with 7 points and no goals conceded they had worryingly only mustered 2 goals themselves, both from Raheem Sterling.
As the match got underway with Southgate opting for his tried and trusted 3-4-3 formation from the last World Cup, the first thing that struck me was how narrow England looked in attack. Seemingly trying to barge a way through the massed German ranks in the centre of the pitch rather than trying to move them around to create gaps. We also looked slow and ponderous in attack and understandably the cries to introduce the effervescent Jack Grealish started early in the match. The fact that we went in at half-time goalless was no real surprise.
The attritional and very tense nature of the game carried on through most of the second half right up to the introduction of that man Grealish to a huge cheer at Wembley but also round most of the pub. There was a sense that a bit like Gazza all those years ago that if anyone was going to make something happen the maverick Brummie was the man to call upon. Sadly for us Gooners it was Bukayo Saka who made way, the two players being similar in approach and dynamism, still Southgate couldn’t really have taken captain Harry Kane or our only goalscorer up to that point Raheem Sterling off, could he?
It took Grealish all of 5 minutes to make his mark on the game feeding the ball out to Luke Shaw on the left who whipped in a cross for Sterling to slot home his and our third goal of the tournament. Immediately afterwards we had the most unexpected of events, Thomas Müller, breaker of English hearts not so long ago, broke through the middle and as every single person watching expected him to draw the Germans level and push us towards extra time and the dreaded penalties, he spectacularly fluffed his lines, dragging his shot wide and allowing us all to breathe again and think maybe just maybe this was going to finally be our day.
With just 4 minutes of normal time remaining Grealish was at it again, this time it was he who clipped the cross in for Harry Kane to notch his first goal of the competition and to seal our victory. There was delirium all around Wembley and albeit sort of socially distanced within our pub and presumably every other one in the country as well. After so long watching games behind closed doors and so many failings when it really matters for England, it was relief as much as anything and a reminder of how things used to be before this cursed virus changed our world.
There is a certain school of thought that even if England haven’t actually played that well in any of their four matches in the competition so far, the tournament is opening up for them. Certainly, the exits of heavily favoured France and 2016 winners Portugal have removed two sides from the equation that were amongst the favourites to win it all.
Yet with Ukraine waiting in the quarter-final tomorrow night away from home for the first time in the competition, potentially followed by a meeting with Denmark, assuming they can overcome the Czech Republic, who after the harrowing events with Christian Eriksen have an understandably strong team spirit and a sense of momentum, we might well be on our way to the final. Of course, if we do get through there is the spectre of Belgium, Italy or possibly Spain in the final, none of which suggest a walkover triumph and football definitely coming home.
We can worry about that later however, right now we can look forward to another match, hopefully three, and be grateful for the lift it has given to the whole country.