England crash on penalties

Italy crowned European champions as England crash on penalties

Italy 1 — England 1 (after extra time)
Italy win 3-2 on penalties

England crash on penaltiesItaly deserved it, even if the win came on penalties, the monkey on England’s back for decades now.

Playing away from home in the Euro 2020 final, the Azzurri outpassed England, conceded just one shot on target (Luke Shaw’s goal), and are now unbeaten in 34 matches, the longest such streak in their history.

This team is greater than the sum of its parts, but it contains several remarkable individuals: Juventus’s ancient central defending duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, the twin midfield playmakers Jorginho and Marco Verratti and goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, apparently complete at 22 and named player of the tournament.

Gareth Southgate’s England were outclassed but highly organised as ever, did well to hold a better side for two hours of play, and can congratulate themselves on their best performance in a tournament since 1966.

England’s captain Harry Kane told the BBC: “We should be extremely proud as a group of what we have achieved,” adding, “We progressed well from Russia and now is about continuing that.”

Southgate said that the players: “have been an absolute joy to work with and they have gone further than we’ve gone for so long. But, of course, tonight it is incredibly painful in that dressing room. You have to feel that disappointment because the opportunities to win trophies like this are so rare in your life.”

This game followed the script of most of England’s big games of recent decades: take an early lead, then spend the rest of the game defending with their backs to the wall, finally succumb, and lose on penalties.

On two minutes they counter-attacked down the right and found Kieran Trippier, who had come into the team for this match in the place of winger Bukayo Saka. A Beckham-esque striker of the ball, Trippier lobbed a precise cross to his fellow full-back, unmarked at the far post. Shaw crowned an excellent tournament by smashing in an instant half-volley.

Italy’s Andrea Belotti lifts the trophy after the final of Euro 2020 © AP

Wembley had been waiting for this moment for 55 years. The stadium was heaving, but dangerously so. It looked a lot fuller than the official capacity of 60,000. People without tickets had breached security, and in some stands every seat looked occupied, and then some: many were standing. Others arrived before extra time, and by the end some gangways were dangerously packed, with few interventions from stewards.

At first, Shaw’s goal seemed to have set up the game England wanted: sit back, rely on their tight defence that had conceded just once before in this tournament, let Italy come at their massed ranks, then hope to counter through the pacy Raheem Sterling.

Their central defensive trio of Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker as ever made hardly any mistakes. Keeper Jordan Pickford had recovered his nerves after losing them in the semi-final against Denmark.

Southgate always has a plan, and by and large his players stick to it. When England had the ball, they tried to bypass central midfield, Italy’s strongest spot, where the Azzurri had both a numerical advantage and the Jorginho-Verratti engine room.

England aimed to play from the back straight to Shaw and Trippier on the flanks or hit deep passes to the head of Kane. But Kane and especially Sterling scarcely got into the game, neutralised by Bonucci (deservedly named “star of the match”) and Chiellini.

England are not an aggressive pressing side, and fielding three centre-backs meant surrendering midfield.

From late in the first half, Italy’s passing moves forced the English to defend around their own penalty area, the zone where one slip can mean disaster.

Italy were the more skilled side on the ball — 90 per cent of their passes were accurate, versus just 78 per cent of England’s — but they also trusted themselves to pass more. If you give a team as good as Italy almost nonstop possession, and licence to advance almost unhindered to within 20 yards of your goal, they are likely to take advantage at some point.

It took until the 61st minute for the Azzurri to force Pickford into a decisive save, diving to his left to stop Federico Chiesa’s low shot. But the goal came six minutes later, the logical consequence of ever-deeper Italian territorial penetration. The scorer, improbably, was 34-year-old Bonucci. An Italian corner prompted a scramble in the penalty area. Pickford pushed Verratti’s header against the post, but the Juventus grandee tapped in the rebound.

Southgate should have intervened to change England’s tactics earlier, but did so only after the damage was done, sending on Saka for Trippier and going from a five-man to a four-man defence.

From then on, England did manage to keep the ball more often and further from their own danger area.

In extra time Italy’s menace diminished, with their chief creator Verratti and Chiesa having gone off injured. Southgate had sent on the wild-card young dribbler, Jack Grealish, and he danced around Italian defenders, serenaded by Wembley as “Super, Super Jack”.

Still, the stats told the story of who had dominated the 120 minutes of play: Italy had 62 per cent possession, completed 755 passes to England’s 341, and had six shots on target to England’s one. It’s a tribute to England’s defensive organisation that they managed to take this game to penalties.

Southgate’s England will have felt more confident about the shootout than any other recent national side. They had broken the country’s ancient penalty jinx by beating Colombia in the shootout at the World Cup in 2018, and few sides practice penalties more or perform more exhaustive data analysis of them.

Just before the end of extra time, Southgate had sent on Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho specifically for their prowess at penalty-taking.

It was brave of them to line up. In the event, they were the first England players to miss, after Kane and Maguire had hit unstoppable kicks. Perhaps it’s too much to ask of young men to come into a game of such importance cold, and then almost immediately take the weightiest spot-kicks in English football history.

When Donnarumma saved from Saka, it was all over.

Italy hadn’t even qualified for the last World Cup, a low in their modern footballing history. This triumph crowned their thrilling reinvention as an attacking passing side under manager Roberto Mancini. Their 13 goals at Euro 2020 were the most the Azzurri have scored in a major tournament.

Italy will travel with confidence to the World Cup in Qatar next year. But England — still a relatively young side with potential to grow — have an outside shot, too.

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