After beating Denmark on Wednesday it's clear England know how to close out matches
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England players have been holding training sessions and meetings since the World Cup over matching the likes of Italy for “streetwise” football, it can be revealed.
The issue of seeing out games, which resulted in a late semi-final winner for Croatia in Russia, was identified by Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff and their work culminated in keeping the ball for the final minutes against Denmark on Wednesday evening.
Raheem Sterling had the opportunity to go for a third goal at Wembley but stuck to the plan of killing off the game and securing a place in the European Championship final on Sunday against Italy, the masters of winning at any cost.
Southgate had talked about matching the mentality of top countries when he first took charge of England five years ago and the 53-pass move as they ran the clock down was evidence of the gap closing.
“The players have learned a lot over the last three or four years, we talked to them about that, we used to talk to the Under-21s about that – it was one of the biggest areas we had to improve upon,” said Southgate.
“And we still can be better at it because the first five minutes of that second half of extra-time, we had the man advantage and didn’t really keep the ball well enough. There was opportunities to keep the ball far better than we did.
“But we’d worked it out and the players had worked it out, they did that really well and we have got the technicians to be able to do it.”
Mario Mandzukic’s goal in Moscow ended England’s World Cup hopes at the semi-final stage three years ago but they have gone one step further in their next major tournament with players showing more of a ruthless streak to see out results.
A few months later they conceded a late consolation when Sergio Ramos scored for Spain in the 98th minute but work had already started in creating a squad using their streetwise skills to see out games.
Their learning curve included late goals in defeats against Czech Republic and Holland in the UEFA Nations League but it is now almost two years since they have conceded in the final stages of matches.
At the Euros, all of their matches required concentration until the final whistle to see out a result. Even against Germany, nothing was safe until Harry Kane sealed victory with his opening goal of the tournament.
England's win over Germany was just one game of many that illustrates they can come out on top in tight battles
It was not until Ukraine that Southgate’s team were runaway winners with time to spare, and then the manager carefully looked at which players to rest in Rome rather than keeping Kane on the pitch to chase a hat-trick.
On Sunday, they will come up against the kings of the dark arts when they face Roberto Mancini’s team who will stop at nothing to get an edge, Ciro Immobile condemned for being immersed in the act of faking injury until Italy scored against Belgium and jumped up to celebrate.
Both teams went to extra-time in their semi-finals and Southgate is mindful of his players also expending energy in the euphoria of celebration. He says that is one of the big lessons they learned from Russia. Italy also have an extra day to recover.
How the teams will run down the clock will be an important factor on Sunday as limbs get tired and the trophy is there for the taking. Southgate is hoping the work of the last few years in seeing out results will bear fruit against the team schooled in catenaccio.
“It is definitely a bit of a disadvantage to have one day less but we have to find the best way of dealing with that,” said Southgate. “In terms of Italy, I think what Roberto has done and the way they’ve
played the last couple of years, the record speaks for itself in terms of the wins, the small number of goals conceded. The style of play has been exceptional.”
For the players, the 53 passes strung together was a symbol that the ghosts of Croatia in 2018 have been laid to rest. Southgate’s message in extra-time was to “be brave” and stay patient, in another departure from the days of being fearful.
“That Croatia game we’ve forgotten about and we’ve come a long way since the semi final in Russia,” said Kieran Trippier. “We’ve got so many good players now, different players from back then. It’s about progressing, and I think we’ve made big steps since the World Cup.
“It’s all about experience and game management. Make no mistake, We’ve learnt so much over the years, with the experiences we’ve had, we’ve been in two penalty shootouts since Russia, we’ve been to extra time. Going through that moment against Croatia was about learning. We’ve got an experienced group and young lads but it was one of those games where you stick together, don’t give up, and we showed great togetherness as a team.”
Italy: how they are masters of the dark arts
By James Ducker
“Fare il Furbo, or being clever
“Generous” was how Marco Verratti described England’s penalty award against Denmark but the Italy midfielder never seemed likely to criticise Raheem Sterling for going to ground too easily. Indeed, in such an instance, the Italians – privately if not publicly – might be more likely to condemn the defenders for allowing themselves to be duped than criticise the player who goes down under minimal contact. In Italy, they have a saying “fare il furbo” – it means ‘being clever’ or, in other words, don’t be the one who gets tricked. England may have become more streetwise as a team but they will be up against the masters of the dark arts at Wembley on Sunday and, as expansive as some of Italy’s football has been at this tournament, they have demonstrated they have lost none of their knack for gamesmanship.
“English kids – traditionally – have been spared that little life lesson, the notion that you can get to the top by cheating as long as you don’t get caught,” wrote the former Italy striker, Gianluca Vialli, now a member of Roberto Mancini’s back room staff out to topple England, in his 2006 book, The Italian Job. “Italians, however, are taught that many succeed by cheating, which is why they have to be careful not to be cheated themselves.”
Those lines may have become more blurred in more recent years but the conflicted reaction among some England supporters to the way the game was won against Denmark was telling.
“Pathetically embarrassing” was Alan Shearer’s take on the sight of the Italy striker Ciro Immobile writhing around on the ground in apparent agony only to suddenly get on his feet to join in the celebrations once Nicolo Barella had put the Azzurri in front in their quarter-final win over Belgium.
It was an extraordinary piece of theatre that maintained Italy’s strong lineage in this department and drew an equally colourful defence from his team-mate, Leonardo Bonucci. “Ciro felt contact and he went down,” the Juventus defender said. “The joy and excitement of a goal is so great in matches such as these that it means that you don’t experience any more pain after that.”
As Ciro Immobile illustrated against Belgium the Italians are not averse to the odd bout of play-acting
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No one can run down a clock quite like the Italians. They have been behind on only three occasions during their record 33-match unbeaten run and, once they get their noses in front, they are well rehearsed in closing a game out and do not care who they upset or offend in the process. The final 20 minutes against Belgium was a masterclass in that regard. Gianluigi Donnarumma paid little attention to the boos reverberating around the Allianz Arena and the protestations of Belgium players as he took an age to take the plethora of free-kicks and goal-kicks Italy won. And there were almost two minutes between the Italy goalkeeper dropping to the ground under a marginal challenge from Axel Witsel and him taking the resulting free-kick after receiving treatment to his left hand.
“In Italy there is a culture of whingeing. And it’s not whingeing for the sake of whingeing, it’s ‘calculated whingeing’,” Vialli writes. “If a controversial decision goes against you, it is always a good idea to cry, scream, shout and complain about it”.
That was immediately apparent when Giorgio Chiellini, Bonucci, Verratti and Jorginho – soon to be followed by Federico Chiesa, Leonardo Spinazzola and Giovanni Di Lorenzo – were in referee Slavko Vincic’s face the moment he awarded Belgium a penalty. Donnarumma then continued the protests. The logic is simple: create a sense of victimhood, get people believing there is a plot against you in a bid to influence referees’ thinking and entrench the group’s siege mentality.
You could imagine Italian footballers emitting a collective groan when vanishing spray was introduced. Encroachment has long been rife in Italian football but the spray given to referees to help combat the problem did not stop Domenico Berardi from edging towards Kevin De Bruyne and then charging down the Belgium midfielder’s free-kick from just a few yards out in the 89th minute in Munich. He was booked for his efforts but it succeeded in wasting another 80 seconds.
The likes of Chiellini and Bonucci may come across as urbane and charming off the field but on it they are, to borrow the former Arsenal captain Frank McLintock’s description of Italian defenders, “absolute bastards”. They will pinch, pull and bump you, and sometimes worse, and then they will repeatedly rub it in your face by high-fiving the moment they block your shot or you stick one in the stands. England beware.