England celebrate after victory in the Euros semi-final
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Gareth Southgate is not satisfied yet. He may have methodically solved everything that was wrong with the England national team the chronic under-achievement, the weight of the shirt, the penalty failures. It is still not enough.
He will not rest until he has turned England into peak-era Barcelona.
That was the impression from a dream-like spell of keep-ball towards the end of Tuesday night’s semi-final victory, in which England seized control of their destiny by hogging the ball like a team of vindictive bigger boys playing one from two years below.
‘Game management,’ you would call it. This is the wide-ranging euphemism for everything from extending throw-ins to 30 second performance art pieces to pretending to have cramp even after you’ve downed your isotonic drink during the suspiciously well-timed non-injury to a team-mate.
Such shenanigans feel like the final step for Southgate’s team, evidence of the manager’s much vaunted secretly steely core.
It wasn’t just the streetsmarts (nudge nudge, wink wink) from Raheem Sterling which won the decisive penalty, nor Harry Kane’s knowledge of exactly how to collapse under a challenge to win a free kick. There was an astonishing calmness to England at the time when the game should have been at its most frightening.
Instead, they took a breath, assessed the situation and killed it off.
With 26 minutes and 29 seconds on the extra time clock Kyle Walker raced onto a loose ball.
He made an odd diagonal run into space then checked back, as if suddenly realising Denmark were down to 10 men and the time was right to hold what England had.
The passing began, a proficient series of short exchanges, improvised triangles and ball-movement around all of the pitch.
Kieran Trippier was put through on an overlap on the right, taking the ball towards the corner then slowing to a walking pace.
Before long England were back in their own half having been close to the byline. John Stones was on the ball and the crowd began marking each pass with ‘olé!’, terrifying anyone still nursing a 55-year-old inferiority complex.
Harry Kane was put into space on the left. With a chance to attack he sensibly went backwards instead.
Soon it was entering exhibition territory, Raheem Sterling turning a corner, instigating a give and go with Jordan Henderson and being put past his man.
Sterling reached the byline and faced up to Denmark’s Maehle. Phil Foden was waiting in the middle.
A cross must have felt irresistible.
How many times had Sterling been in similar situations with his Manchester City team-mate, in games and training? How strong must the urge have been to go with heart over head, to chase the high of another goal?
How enormously intelligent it was instead to keep the overall objective in mind, keep possession, and check backwards towards the wing.
His pass back to Henderson was the 25th of what would turn out to be a 53 pass move. The riskier option to try Foden in the middle could have been cut out, Denmark may have broken and we might be reading some very different articles about Sterling and England this morning.
Fifteen passes later it was Sterling on the ball again, with a three on two this time.
Again he kept it sensible, trading passes with Trippier before returning it to Henderson, the fulcrum of the England rondo.
Pass 49 was Kalvin Phillips all way back to Jordan Pickford, meaning all 11 players had now touched the ball.
Pickford went long, it seemed to be going out for a throw near the benches but Luke Shaw flicked it out of the air with a backheel which found Kane. Never has an ‘Olé!’ been more justified.
Two passes later Shaw found Phillips, who finally miscued a pass, sending it out for a throw. There were now just 51 seconds left until the end of extra time.
Two minutes and 40 seconds after Walker had begun England’s spell of possession Denmark were exhausted. England had calmed themselves and their supporters down. Job done.
The move in full went as follows: Walker, Kane, Henderson, Trippier, Henderson, Trippier, Sterling, Foden, Phillips, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw, Phillips, Kane, Shaw, Phillips, Maguire, Trippier, Walker, Henderson, Trippier, Sterling, Henderson, Sterling, Henderson, Trippier, Foden, Trippier, Phillips, Foden, Phillips, Stones, Maguire, Shaw, Maguire, Kane, Shaw, Henderson, Sterling, Trippier, Sterling, Henderson, Foden, Henderson, Sterling, Phillips, Stones, Phillips, Shaw, Kane, Shaw.
Look at that list of names above. It’s not just vindication for Southgate’s substitutes, given that no player had more than Henderson’s eight of Trippier’s seven touches in the move, but a wider triumph for the manager.
On Wednesday night Sterling, Kane, Maguire and the entire team played for England. It took a strong-willed imagination to picture them in their club shirts during the game. This was not the case in the England era of Arsenal’s Ashley Cole, Chelsea’s John Terry, Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard. Theirs was a stronger list of individuals, as a team there is no comparison.
Italy and a final is another challenge. But this team has unity, identity, belief and composure. They know how to win a game, how to hang on in adversity.
Most astonishingly, they know how to keep possession. Treasure the moment, like they do the ball.