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A north London night: How England's Euro 2020 dream was shattered

As all three of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka failed to convert from the spot, England’s dream of ending those 55 years of hurt and lifting another major international trophy was doused by the north London rain.

Ankit Kanaujia
Last updated: 15.07.2021
A north London night How England Euro 2020 dream was shattered

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. This England team was labelled as the one to shake off the failures of past setups, but in the end an old familiar foe proved their downfall — penalty kicks. As all three of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka failed to convert from the spot, England’s dream of ending those 55 years of hurt and lifting another major international trophy was doused by the north London rain. Italy celebrated, jubilant. England’s players could only watch on and lament how close they came.

Whilst England were among the pre-tournament favourites among those betting on football for Euro 2020, it’s fair to say that few really expected them to reach the final, let alone win it. And yet Gareth Southgate and his team had given the nation hope that this was a different England, a united, well-oiled group of players who all had the same singular goal — bringing football home. And while it wasn’t meant to be, there is so much to be proud of.

Southgate’s tactics had been faultless throughout the tournament, but in the crunch showdown with Italian coach Roberto Mancini, the England boss perhaps got it wrong in the final. England started like a house on fire, pressing Italy intently, ensuring every contact was as physical as could be, before storming into the lead through Luke Shaw’s powered left-foot finish.


All was going to plan. Wembley was bouncing. But instead of pressing home their advantage, Southgate and his team gradually took their foot off the gas, and sat back into their defensive shape, allowing Italy the time and space to settle into the game. By the end of the first half, it was clear that the Italians had grown in confidence, and that England’s chance to smother them had disappeared.

England’s path to this final had been all about control. Never had a Three Lions side looked more comfortable managing a game and playing the percentages. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand Southgate’s decision to ease off, to hold fire, but the reality is that this was an occasion which transcended any attempts to control it. The frenzied voices of over 66,000 fans inside Wembley bayed for blood, but England tried to be too clever, too cagey, and after Leonardo Bonucci scrambled the ball into Jordan Pickford’s net, it was back to square one.  

Italy have been simply breathtaking at this tournament, but they were there for the taking on Sunday night. They were overawed in the first part of the match, barely able to string three passes together. The team that had played such sumptuous football in the group stage suddenly resembled a group of ageing dads gathered together for a Sunday morning vets game. But England did not apply the killer touch, and Southgate’s attempt to quash and stifle the old Italian spirit was never likely to succeed. By the time Italy found their feet, it was too late for England to rediscover that early dominance.

Analyse the game all you like, the only thing that mattered in the end was the penalty shootout. Questions could be asked about the choice of kick-takers, but Southgate is a meticulous coach, and England had practiced penalties intently. The order and personnel were based on strategic planning, but that one kick of the ball is the most difficult part of football for a coach to control. Whether it was wise to introduce Rashford and Sancho with the sole aim of taking a penalty, without time to get acclimatised to the match and occasion, is also up for debate.

But it’s a largely pointless debate. Penalties are not a complete lottery, as some would suggest, but nor are they a key indicator of one team’s superiority over another. It was Italy’s night, and it’s hard to begrudge them it. Meanwhile, England fans can be proud of their players. They earned the nation an occasion that most had never experienced in their lifetime, and may never experience again. It was a rollercoaster ride that went beyond lines of club rivalries, and although it ended in cruel disappointment, most will look back at this last month and smile. When was the destination ever as much fun as the journey anyhow?

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