England revel under different kind of pressure as opening Euro 2020 win brings clarity

The Three Lions started their tournament with a composed win thanks to Raheem Sterling’s strike, validating Gareth Southgate’s selection decisions

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 14 June 2021 08:19
England national anthem rings out ahead of Euro 2020 clash with Croatia

The first thing to be said, with no intended offence to Luka Modric, was that many felt so good to come home.

That is one simpler element that shouldn’t be overlooked in the more serious discussions over what England’s opening win means as far as winning the whole tournament. As joyous as the celebrations after the 1-0 win over Croatia were, there was something just as uplifting about the scenes before it.

This was the first England international at Wembley in front of supporters in over a year and a half, and there was a rare excitement on the journey up to the stadium.

Mundane trips on the underground never felt so momentous. There was a glee, a giddiness. There was also a different kind of pressure as a consequence of all that - and quite the release.

Gareth Southgate naturally struck the right tone after the game.

“Pressure is what we decide it to be,” the England manager said. “We talked about it as a group, the opportunity to be the first to do things. We just focused on what this team is about, where we want to go. It’s for everyone else to get excited and throw beer around. It’s brilliant to give joy to people but we’re onto the next game and preparing for a really tough game on Friday.”

The self-contained nature of tournaments means there is inevitably an intense concentration on every individual game, and particularly the opener, to see what conclusions can be drawn. There are very often none.

You only have to look at England’s own history in opening games, and the by-now much-repeated stat that this was the first time they’d won their first match in a European Championships. Southgate and his players only found out about it after the game, which probably fits its actual significance.

Two of England’s best tournaments - 1966 and 1996 - started with tepid draws. Two of their worst - 1982 and 2000 - started with 2-0 leads in the opening minutes of games. The emotion and adrenaline around these matches can ensure a false picture is painted, but that was what was encouraging about this win, and indicated a bit more substance.

It didn’t come from that opening blast, and perhaps the only period in the game where England played in the flowing attacking manner so many demand.

It came from a period that warranted more tactical calculation, a bit more resilience. Just when Croatia had seemed to claim control of the game, the excellent Kalvin Phillips disabused them of that with one driving run and a deft pass. The goal was vindication for one of Southgate’s big decisions, but he was also sure to give credit to the player’s club manager: Leeds United’s Marcelo Bielsa.

“We’d have picked him in March 2020 and seen where it had gone from there but to work with the coach he has and had that season in the Premier League will have given him tremendous confidence,” Southgate said. “All those attributes were there - range of passing, athleticism, desire. He’s just a very good footballer. High maintenance, low maintenance - we like that a lot.

“We know we’re asking Kalvin to play a more advanced role than at his club but he’s got technique to be able to do that. He gives us more solidity in midfield and allows us to play four attacking players.”

This of course puts a different spin on some of the very specific criticisms of Southgate before, and even after, the game.

There were boos that Jack Grealish wasn’t used. England weren’t exactly rampaging. Harry Kane was poor. Sterling meanwhile seemed quite put out at a question over how he “justified” his selection. It was an entirely fair question given the uncertainty beforehand.

But then that’s what this win did beyond anything else. It offered clarity.

It certainly clears a path, as England have that opening win that just makes the group stage so much more uncomplicated - especially in a structure like this with third-placed sides going through.

That can also breed complacency, but Southgate is conscious of that. And this is the other thing with him and this win. It fosters conviction. It is suddenly a lot harder to criticise decisions.

England have the space to grow. That is what really happens in a tournament. Even the third game can have a completely different complexion to the first.

The important thing is that they show the ingredients are there. That much is clear.

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