The main fact of this 3-1 win was that England have qualified for Euro 2024, but the whole feel was why they should be talking about winning it rather than being too concerned any more with the formality of getting there.
A historic major nation like Italy were just made look a minor inconvenience, as Gareth Southgate’s side almost toyed with them. They were just so much better, and have a knowledge of that personified in Jude Bellingham. Harry Kane got two and Marcus Rashford scored a brilliant goal to make it 2-1, but all of that seemed mere detail to the main event, which was the Real Madrid midfielder’s domination of the pitch and decoration of the play.
This England era has now been going on for at least six years, but it is possible that Bellingham’s emergence marks the beginning of something else. He has exactly the type of assurance that can turn fine challengers into elite champions. It is visible in everything he does, not least the outrageous touch for the Rashford goal that sent England to Germany for next summer.
Bellingham is exactly what England have been missing, for far more reasons than his position and his talent.
It wasn’t all positive emotion on the night, mind.
This game did take place amid a more unsettling real-world context, and it should be recorded that the pre-game minutes silence - worded as for “all the members of the European football family killed in recent days from Uefa member nations Israel and Sweden” - had to be ended early as shouts quickly gave way to loud boos. The Italian anthem got similar treatment, as did Jordan Henderson coming on as a substitute, following his move to the Saudi Pro League. There were conspicuously loud cheers alongside that, and that was the noise that soon made up the night’s main soundtrack.
Amid all this, not least the performance, any idea of revenge for the Euro 2020 final was forgotten. That now feels a different football world, even though this England team have clearly internalised the disappointment and learned from it.
It just didn’t seem to matter too much to this match. It’s a very different Italy for one, as Roberto Mancini followed Henderson to the Saudi Pro League, to be replaced by the much more tactically adventurous Luciano Spalletti.
He is one of the modern game’s romantics in that sense, but that Italian football culture for tactical innovation has never been more necessary. Italy, in a greater way than at any point in the modern history of the game, badly need to be more than the sum of their parts. Those parts, with a few exceptions, currently look like those of a mid-tier nation rather than the great football country Italy is.
There are bigger reasons for that. For now, it is England that look the force. They look like potential European champions in waiting, as Italy looked anything other than defending champions.
That still created a few echoes from 2021, not least in the tactical pattern of the game. England looked much more prepared to cede possession and counter, although this time with much more force than in that final.
The group context of course conditioned this, too. While England only required a draw, Italy really needed the win. The situation demanded more attacking, but so did the manager. The encouraging aspect for Spalletti was that Italy already looked more recognisably like one of his teams. Most identifiably, there were those sudden straight-line runs in attack, almost spikes that can do much more than pierce a team.
Giovanni Di Lorenzo looked especially dangerous from these situations, as he marked himself out as one of the most involved players in the game. It was his run down the right that opened the space for Gianluca Scamacca, an incisive move ending with an instinctive finish from the former West Ham striker.
It was his first goal for Italy, on his 13th cap, which perhaps goes some way to reflecting why this major football nation no longer feels a significant threat. It was still a set-back for England, but one that only served to show how they have far surpassed the sort of side that used to have a psychological hold on. They just have far superior players, chief among them Bellingham. You get the sense no opposition side could ever have a psychological hold over him. Di Lorenzo needed to just bring him down for England’s equaliser. It was difficult to figure out why it took the VAR so long to make a decision given how clear the foul seemed to be. Kane duly equalised.
With that shift in momentum, Italy never regained the same force. The match from then almost seemed set up for England, as they visibly enjoyed just surging into the space left behind.
That is something Spalletti is going to have to work on, but then that’s been the case for much of his managerial career. It is a feature of his teams that Italy may just have to work around.
Bellingham just cut through it.
The manner of the goal that sealed qualification was entirely fitting of that achievement, even if it doesn’t mean what it used to. That is precisely because of the quality of the players involved. They have made life with England so much easier, say, than their equivalent games with Italy for the 1998 World Cup.
Bellingham is meanwhile of a type distinctive even from Manchester United’s serial winners in that era. There is just something about the way he carries himself at that age, as could be seen with how he carried the ball for Rashford. The United forward’s finish was as satisfyingly forceful as it was finely placed.
Kane matched that with his second, and England’s third, for a scoreline that was more reflective of the gap between the teams.
The gap from now to Euro 2024 can of course change the landscape of the game. Italy themselves grew from their own excellent qualification for Euro 2020 into something greater for that tournament. Other sides will evolve.
For now, though, none of them bar France look on England’s level.
It was why a win over Italy, and a qualification for a major tournament, felt like such minor developments.
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