Gareth Southgate led England to the 2018 World Cup semi-final and then the final of Euro 2020

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England came so close to ending their 55-year wait for a major trophy but fell agonisingly short in a penalty shootout in the Euro 2020 final. Gareth Southgate’s side will have another chance to end their drought next year – at the World Cup in Qarar. But what do England need to improve to be in with a chance of glory?

Keep the ball better

Long after the final whistle the giant scoreboard at Wembley told the story. It carried the statistics of the European Championship Final and showed: Italy 62 per cent possession; England 38 per cent; Italy 755 passes completed; England 341: Italy 20 attempts at goal; England six.

Despite an impressive, well-managed campaign Southgate’s side faced familiar problems at the last – in critical periods of the game they just did not keep the ball well enough. 

It was a bit like against Croatia in the World Cup semi-final three years ago when they were worn down by the passing of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. This time it was Marco Verratti and Jorginho.

Marco Verratti impressed for Italy in the Euro 2020 final

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“The first 45 minutes, everybody would agree that worked,” Southgate said, having switched to a back-three and catching out Italy with the use of his wing-backs. “We didn’t keep the ball well enough for 15-20 minute period (at the start of the second-half) and we know that with midfield players of the quality of Verratti, Jorginho, that’s always going to be a strength with Italy.

“They are going to have possession, we were actually controlling the game without the ball for long periods. But that period we were a little bit more open we then couldn’t release that pressure by keeping the ball, which we had done so well in the first-half.”

The question is: do England possess a midfield controller who can take the ball and dictate the tempo when things are going against you? Unfortunately not and it remains a key issue in the very biggest games. Jude Bellingham will come into this area but he is not quite that type of player.

Remember they are getting closer

At the party to reunite the players and their families there was a rendition of Oasis’s ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. England have no need to do that.

Amid the analysis and debate, the disappointment and lamenting a glorious missed opportunity, one thing must be remembered: they are getting closer to winning a major trophy. This feels like a very different England.

Gareth Southgate cited recent history – the example of Germany, who lost World Cup semi-finals in 2006 and 2010 before winning the trophy in 2014 and, hopefully even more relevantly, France who lost the final of the European Championship in Paris in 2016 before winning the World Cup in 2018.

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“If you want sustained success as a team you have to be constantly evolving, constantly improving, constantly finishing in those latter stages and most teams that win…went close a couple of times before they won,” the England manager argued. 

“That is normally part of the process that you have to go through. The fact that we’ve had the first signs of consistency – semi-final, final – that has to be a step in the right direction.

“It’s not ultimately where we want to get to and when you are so close that’s even more painful, of course…but I know when my logical brain comes back to life in a few days that is the process we have to go through and we have got to keep continuing that and England have to keep that track going.” 

They need to build on experience; embrace it and – also – not forget that the best team in the tournament, Italy, won it. There is no shame in that.

It is not the end of an era

A tournament can complete a cycle. Despite seven of the starting XI against Italy having been in the team that lost the World Cup semi-final against Croatia three years ago, England are not in that situation.

“Because of what they have been through in these two tournaments they will want more, they will know they can get close, they will have belief and that’s what we have to build on,” Southgate said. 

“It doesn’t guarantee anything because you have to start again and you have to earn the right every time you take the field and every time you go into a tournament. But the expectation and the cycle of the group when they come together now will be ‘no, no, no this is how it works.”

England's squad includes a host of younger players, including 21-year-old Jadon Sancho

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

England had the third youngest squad at the Euros and the next World Cup is just 16 months away, so even older players such as Jordan Henderson and Kyle Walker will still only be 32 when Qatar comes around.

“It is a club-type spirit and, the younger ones especially, well all of this team can go again,” Southgate argued. “There’s no doubt about that, but the young ones are still two, four years from peaking. We’ve got 18, 19, 20-year-olds who have done an incredible job and had a great insight into tournament football and acquitted themselves well throughout.”

Jude Bellingham is 18, Bukayo Saka 19, Jadon Sancho, Reece James and Phil Foden are 21, Declan Rice and Mason Mount 22, Marcus Rashford 23, Ben Chilwell and Dominic Calvert-Lewin 24, Jack Grealish and Kalvin Phillips 25 and Luke Shaw has just turned 26. And there is more talent coming through.

Be more creative and a little less cautious

“That has to be the aim,” Southgate said when asked whether the focus now has to be on getting more out of England’s rich array of creative players. It is a balance. Tournaments tend to be won by teams who are defensively sound – and Italy fall into that category with their remarkable centre-half pairing – but also have attacking players who shine in decisive moments. 

Did England get the best out of theirs? On occasions, yes, but there was understandable caution also from Southgate partly because of their youth and some were under-used.

“Some of the players are not yet at that point of their evolution to be cemented in the team,” Southgate said, and that is not unreasonable. Also England came into this tournament with a less than ideal preparation and that made the need to work on a sound defensive base even more important. 

“We were constantly dealing with uncertainties,” the England manager added – and by its very nature that does not encourage creativity. Still when he goes back over the games he will consider whether he encouraged enough attacking talent and used the strength on his bench successfully enough. Unfortunately the answer is probably not.