Euro 2020: England count the positives after another heartbreak

Looking at the bigger picture, the Euro 2020 final defeat is probably just the beginning for an England squad that was the second youngest at the tournament, with an average age of 25.27.

It went Rome and somewhat expectedly, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – 23, 21 and 19 who missed penalties in the shootout – found themselves at the receiving end of racist abuse on social media. Outside Wembley, as England lost to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, some hooligans laid into Italian fans and damaged properties. But the decent fans, in the vast majority, stood up to applaud Gareth Southgate’s ‘Lions’.

As Harry Kane and Co did a lap of honour after the match, their appreciation for the fans was reciprocated. These players have challenged racism, fought against food poverty and made donations to the National Health Service (NHS). Unlike Memphis Depay (Netherlands forward), for example, who once turned up at a Manchester United training session in a Rolls-Royce and got ticked off by then club captain Wayne Rooney, the England lads aren’t bling-obsessed.

But more than the way they carry themselves off the pitch, the performance of the England players on it has made football lovers fall in love with the team. Yes, they suffered another penalty shootout heartbreak, a streak that dates back to Turin at Italia ’90, but during their march to the Euros final, Southgate’s England broke the Germany hoodoo and won a semifinal at a major tournament after 55 years. In the final, they took the lead on two minutes and dominated the game until Italy manager Roberto Mancini made two attacking substitutions to take control of the midfield. Still, England evenly matched the best team of Euro 2020 until the final entered the lottery of a penalty shootout.

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As Jose Mourinho pointed out on talkSPORT Breakfast on Monday, maybe Southgate erred in picking Rashford and Sancho for the shootout, for coming as late substitutes they had barely touched the ball, and Saka taking the fifth attempt, with the weight of an entire nation resting on his young shoulders. Then again, Mourinho also prompted the listeners to read between the lines. “And because I feel Gareth is such an honest guy and is so protective of his players, I don’t believe Gareth would ever say if ‘Player A or ‘Player B’ ran away or hid or said they were not ready to take one,” said the two-time Champions League-winning manager. Rashford, Sancho and Saka fronted up and like former United and England centre-half Rio Ferdinand posted on Twitter, “takes a form of bravery to step up in such pressurised situations.”

Looking at the bigger picture, this is probably just the beginning for an England squad that was the second youngest at the Euros, with an average age of 25.27. These players are unburdened by the weight of history and after making it to the semifinals at the 2018 World Cup, have now progressed a step further. Former England centre-forward Gary Lineker said as much through a tweet after the final.

Three years ago in Moscow, England had surrendered the initiative to Croatia after being the better side in the first half. On Sunday at Wembley, they allowed Italy to dominate possession after the break. Little wonder then that Lineker has an advice for the team going forward.

“I think going forward @England have to find a way of being more attack minded. Braver in possession and throwing more people forward. We have the forward talent to scare teams, at present we seem scared ourselves to release that talent,” he posted.

Leading lights

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford made 16 saves, including two penalties in the final, and kept five clean sheets (Euro 2020 official app stats). Left-back Luke Shaw completed the tournament with a goal, three assists, 21 ball recoveries and earning the moniker ‘Shawberto’. Harry Maguire, offering a Bobby Moore-like presence, had 34 ball recoveries and 25 clearances. Kalvin Phillips, hitherto unknown away from Premier League nerds, has grown to be the team’s beating heart, effecting 32 ball recoveries, providing one assist and covering 83 kilometres in seven games. A rejuvenated Raheem Sterling scored three goals in the tournament. First-timers like Mason Mount and Declan Rice will carry forward the experience of playing a Euros final to the 2022 World Cup a year-and-a-half down the line.

“We will dust ourselves down and get ready for the next tournament,” Kane said post-match. Historically, reverses have made England stronger, from war to post-war austerity and sport, and with Southgate confirming his stay, the new England now have their eyes fixed on Qatar.

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