Commentary: Euro 2020 - England is turning out to be a winning team
The expectations on the Three Lions has rocketed sky-high since they beat Ukraine soundly to book a spot in the semis. Can this team go all the way and “bring football home”? John Duerden says they’ve far exceeded expectations already.
SINGAPORE: Goldman Sachs has a Euro 2020 probability model and it predicts that England will win the European Championships.
CNBC has reported that the investment bank has put England at a 57.7 per cent chance of getting to the final and a 31.9 per cent of winning the tournament. “It’s (Probably) Coming Home” was the title of the note that was published on Sunday (Jul 4).
“It’s coming home” is of course the rallying cry of English fans everywhere – a plaintive yearning for a team that famously won the World Cup in 1966 and have, even more famously, won nothing since.
They meet Denmark on Wednesday (Jul 7) - Thursday, Singapore time - in the semi-final of the 2020 European Championships and, perhaps, Spain or Italy in the final on Sunday. But whether they go all the way, this tournament will be regarded, overall, as a success for England.
This version of the Three Lions is different from those that have gone before and that is a prize worth celebrating.
There have been memorable tournaments since with the team reaching the last four at the 1990 and 2018 World Cups and also the 1996 European Championships.
But those have been roller-coaster rides, at times chaotic and lucky affairs such as the 1990 quarter-final win over Cameroon, just two wins out of five at home in 1996 and a hugely favourable draw in 2018.
At least those tournaments provided drama and excitement. Many of the other tournaments have either been missed - such as the 1994 World Cup - or dull and disappointing such as the 2010 or 2014 editions when England played turgid, reactive football that was devoid of creativity.
In contrast, the summer of 2021 has been controlled, composed and calm with a sense that there is still more to come.
Heading into the tournament, there was general agreement that England have a plethora of top-class attacking talents to choose from. Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford are playing at top clubs in the English Premier League.
This is currently regarded as the toughest and most competitive domestic league in the world, and these exciting players are all coming off fine seasons to give coach Gareth Southgate a team he can work well with.
England’s weakness was thought to be in defence but the team has reached the semi-final without conceding a single goal. Some said the group was an easy one but it did contain 2018 World Cup finalist Croatia, who came close to knocking Spain out in the second round, and a Czech team that reached the last eight.
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Earlier in the tournament Southgate was criticised for playing too defensively. Increasingly, fans and media have come to see that keeping things tight at the back gives the forward players the freedom to win games.
After winning Group D, England defeated old rival Germany in the second round, with two late goals sending 60,000 fans at Wembley and millions watching at home wild with delight.
There were then concerns of overconfidence for the quarter final against Ukraine in Rome but the team produced a professional, polished and clinical performance to win 4-0.
It has all been done with the minimum of fuss and without the drama that has dogged previous England teams.
Ahead of the 2002 World Cup there was huge attention on the fitness of superstar David Beckham and the same was the case four years later with Wayne Rooney with England falling into their traditional trap of taking their star players even though they were unfit.
In 2006, the media loved the shopping and social activities of the players’ wives and girlfriends (called the WAGs) who followed the team to Germany. In 2010, there were rumours of discontent among the squad in South Africa with Wayne Rooney famously criticising the team’s fans on camera after being booed off the pitch following a 0-0 draw with Algeria.
Former Manchester United and Ireland captain Roy Keane said: “At a lot of the big tournaments over the years, there has been a bit of a circus around certain personalities and we don’t see it with this group.”
In 2017, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand, big names from earlier in the century said that they found it hard to separate club rivalries when they reported for national team duty.
It was one of the reasons, they said, that the so-called "Golden Generation" did not live up to the hype and they didn’t enjoy playing for the country as much as they should have.
Again, that does not seem to be the case with the current players.
“What I like about this England team is that you can see the togetherness of the team,” said former Netherlands midfielder Nigel de Jong. “There are no big egos, no momentum going in the wrong direction and no jealousy.” There has been no public discontent expressed by players who have not had many minutes on the pitch so far.
SOUTHGATE AS A SPECIAL SAUCE?
Much of that has to be down to the man-management of Gareth Southgate who has worked hard to create a real team feeling among the squad. A thoughtful, articulate and likeable leader, he has also endeavoured to remove some of the pressure and external factors that have dogged the national team over the years.
These pressures led to the England shirt being regarded as one of the heaviest in world football even for players that have been successful at club level.
Southgate, whose missed penalty led to England losing to Germany in the semi-final of the 1996 European Championship knows more than most about pressure in big games for the national team. “Pressure is the noise that surrounds you and whether you choose to allow that noise to affect you.”
The former defender has noticeably not talked about past tournaments to a young team full of players whose parents were probably not even alive in 1966 when England were world champions and are not interested in, or inspired by, talk of wartime enemies or ancient tournaments.
“Games from 40, 50 years ago don’t mean anything so I haven’t discussed that with them at all. They don’t need to worry about the past because our past isn’t particularly great so they shouldn’t feel pressure.”
CAN THEY BRING IT HOME?
After the performances and results against Germany and Ukraine - not to mention group stage victories over 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia and the tough Czech Republic - there is some confidence going into the game with Denmark.
Yet the approach from the camp is quiet and respectful and even the most excitable sections of the infamous English media are focusing on the positives, perhaps a reflection on the more measured and composed attitude of the players.
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There is genuine respect for the Denmark team, one inspired by the traumatic experience of the opening game when star player Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch. The Danes have exceeded expectations with their attacking style but have yet to meet a defence as strong as England’s.
“No matter what happens. I just hope that their parents, teachers and club managers will turn to them and say :‘Look that’s the way to represent your country. That’s what England is all about, that is what is possible'," Southgate wrote just before the tournament started.
“If we can do that, it will be a summer to be proud of."
This is an England team that the nation, weary and in need of cheer after 15 months of lockdown and restrictions, is proud of whether the players actually lift the trophy on Jul 11 or not.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).