How’s the head the day after the night before?
So what was your hangover cure? The raw eggs? The full English? The 8am Zoom meeting? More alcohol? All of the above?
Or are you still a bit dazed and confused and wondering whether it was all a hazy alcoholic dream? Well, it probably was an alcoholic haze, but it was not a dream – this time. It was all true. England did beat Germany in a knockout game. At Wembley.
Now the dust has settled, or rather the hangover cure is getting to work (very slowly, no doubt), it is amusing to reflect on the irony of pragmatic, safety-first England getting to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 looking neither great, but nor in any kind of trouble, whilst illustrious teams with more attacking prowess, such as world champions France and the Netherlands, tumbled out in madcap fashion, with Spain nearly following them.
Inevitably, Gareth Southgate has been roundly criticised for his conservative approach in this tournament. Of course he would been pilloried even more had England played adventurously and lost. In truth, Southgate can’t win even when he does win. Play not to lose and you struggle to create opportunities to win; play to win and you are in danger of conceding and losing. How to square the circle?
Against Germany, Southgate’s decision to match up their formation by playing wing-backs was a good idea, but with one glaring problem: his team selection left a massive hole in the middle. England were like a jigsaw puzzle with one central piece missing. So while they never looked like they were going lose, they never looked like they were going to win either.
Until the 69th minute when the piece was put in place. Bukayo Saka was taken off for Jack Grealish, who slotted in on the left with Sterling moving to the right, behind Kane. It was a subtle tweak without compromising the basic shape of the team, and the hole was filled. The England jigsaw was complete and within minutes the goal arrived.
Raheem Sterling, who had been forced to drop deep and try to be playmaker and runner in one, leaving him running into German cul-de-sacs, was now liberated and could give and go. Harry Kane, who had shown less mobility than a geriatric with a zimmer frame, suddenly became relevant in the penalty area. And poor Luke Shaw, who had been ignored on the overlap on the left like a friendless Billy no-mates, got himself a wingman. Result?
Goal one: Sterling to Kane to Grealish to Shaw to penalty area to Sterling to goal.
Goal two: Shaw to Grealish to penalty area to Kane to goal (with Sterling hovering ominously behind him had he missed).
Yes, in between England rode their luck, but hey, England were owed by the gods. How many times at a major event have they been shafted? Besides, even if Thomas Muller had scored, England now had the right balance on the pitch to counter, so who is to say England wouldn’t have got that second anyway?
Ultimately, England were not pretty, but they were effective – once Grealish came on – and got the result we dared not dream of.
In playing three central defenders with wing-backs, Southgate may also have found the best way to incorporate playing two holding midfielders without negating England’s attacking impetus too much. For all the carping over England’s style of play or lack of, the team have never looked truly uncomfortable in this tournament except for the group match against Scotland. England played a conventional 4-3-3 and were nullified by a five-man midfield, which outnumbered them in the middle. Had they played with wing-backs, they would have matched them in midfield, which was Southgate’s purpose in doing so against Germany, and the outcome may have been a little less dissatisfying.
England’s quarter-final opponents, Ukraine, may very well play with five in the middle, but even if they don’t, so long as England don’t leave a meteor-sized crater between their two holding players and the front men, the formation may afford them the best balance between their need for security and the necessity of creativity, even if it is coming off the bench.
If England can get the balance right on Saturday in Rome, then a cure will be needed for an even bigger hangover on Sunday.