For 15 minutes England were sharp and incisive, snapping into tackles before Italy’s midfield could come up for breath. The wing-backs, Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier, started high up the pitch and the Italians looked quizzically at each other, unsure whose responsibility they were. They combined for a beautifully taken goal and twice more in those early moments Trippier found threatening positions down the right side of Italy’s box.
Before kick-off Gareth Southgate had explained their roles. “Italy play a consistent style which poses a tactical problem, one which we felt the need to resolve,” he said. “It becomes complicated if you drag your wingers all the way back.” His solution was to turn to a back three with wing-backs to resist Italy’s flying full-backs who had been so dangerous throughout the tournament. Within two minutes, that decision had been vindicated through a goal scored by one wing-back and created by the other. First Shaw fed Kane who found Trippier, and he carefully picked out Shaw arriving at the back post to unleash a sweet half-volley past a stationary Gianluigi Donnarumma.
This was not luck. Federico Chiesa is not the most alert in tracking back and Shaw had exploited the weakness. As Shaw shaped to shoot, Chiesa made a half-hearted sprint but he was 20 yards away and it was too late. Mount also took advantage on that side of the pitch: early in the game when Shaw received the ball high on the left touchline, right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo came out to meet him and Mount immediately darted into the vacant space behind and caused problems.
The wing-back system also helped Sterling to play more centrally. After the Denmark semi-final the manager revealed he had moved Sterling in extra time to dribble at Jannik Vestergaard, and clearly the plan before the final was to get Sterling running at Italy’s slowest legs too, especially Jorginho and Giorgio Chiellini.
Slowly, though, the energy of that early goal wore off. A telling passage came in the 25th minute: England battled to win the ball and secure it at the back, but no one seemed to want it. Rice passed to Shaw, who went backwards to Maguire, who was forced back to Pickford, who opted not to pick out a teammate but to slam the ball upfield. Without doing much at all, Italy had it back.
A moment later Pickford opted to go long from a goal-kick, something he did repeatedly despite Maguire and Stones offering short, as if he’d already lost faith in any plan to pass through Italy. Sometimes being direct worked and Kane battled brilliantly with Chiellini all evening to win aerial challenges – some of the England captain’s hold-up play was exceptional. But further back, England’s lack of conviction to break Italy’s press turned the ball over too easily and left them chasing their opponents.
Southgate pinpointed the problem at full-time. “Our lack of composure in possession turned the game. We were defending OK, but because we kept giving the ball back we kept inviting pressure.”
Once Italy settled on the ball, England had another problem. Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne stayed high and wide which pinned Shaw and Trippier into a back five, and although the five v three was relatively secure defensively, it meant Italy could overload in midfield and dominate possession.
Pickford continued playing long (one free-kick shortly before half-time bombed straight out for an Italian goal-kick) while there were nervy passages of play in England’s defence, as if growing tension in the stands was seeping into their legs. Rice and Phillips were more composed than most and both were impressive in pressing and ball-carrying, but the formation meant they had few options when they looked forwards – Shaw and Trippier gradually became more reserved – and Italy had no reason to back off.
Italy improved with the introduction of Bryan Cristante and Domenico Berardi and their goal, when it eventually came, was a result of mounting pressure. Maguire was forced to concede a corner by Chiesa’s teasing cross, and from there England lost some duels in a chaotic box. Chiellini knocked Stones to the floor, Marco Verratti beat Mount to a header and Leonardo Bonucci reacted quicker than anybody to tap home the rebound after Pickford’s excellent save.
Given the pattern, it was tempting to compare the game with England’s defeat by Croatia in the World Cup three years ago, and certainly there were some similarities. England started fast and went in front largely thanks to Trippier’s dead aim, before a familiar cycle took hold: losing possession, chasing the ball, tiring, retreating, and struggling to regain control.
But there were some notable differences too. This Italy side are better than the Croatia team England faced three years ago and it was a mark of England’s tactical improvement that they were able to adapt in the second half, replacing Trippier with Bukayo Saka and adopting a 4-3-3 formation which helped to engage Italy higher up the pitch and regain a foothold.
From England’s first goal-kick after the system switch, the benefits were there. Italy took a step back to cover off the passing lanes into England’s forward players, and suddenly Stones and Maguire had more space to play out from deep. They did so successfully with Phillips’s help and had Kane played a better weighted pass for Saka, England would have got in behind.
They never fully recovered though. Roberto Mancini used more substitutes and deployed them earlier, and Italy seemed to have more energy and quality in extra time. It was ironic that the tactical battle indirectly impacted the shootout, too. Trippier was one of England’s highest ranked penalty takers but Southgate’s change in formation meant sacrificing the wing-back, and he was off the pitch watching as Donnarumma saved twice to win the final.
Across the tournament, Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland got their big calls right at just about every turn despite some scepticism from the outside. England didn’t lose a game in 90 minutes and didn’t concede a goal in open play. They beat Croatia, knocked out Germany and thrashed Ukraine. In the final perhaps starting with a back four would have caused more problems for Italy, but then England might not have got off to that explosive start. Perhaps earlier substitutions may have loosened Italy’s grip, but they may have unsettled England’s resolute defending too.
Ultimately, England came up short against the rightful winners. Finding a way to keep the ball against that calibre of opposition will be key if they are to go one step further in next year’s World Cup.
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