With England one game away from their first final at a major tournament since 1966, Sky Sports News reporter Rob Dorsett analyses the tactical talking points ahead of England’s semi-final showdown…
Gareth Southgate – and seemingly every England player, when interviewed – has spoken of the unique bond and unbreakable team spirit in this Euros squad. It’s a togetherness that could drive England towards their first major international trophy in 55 years.
It’s arguably been Southgate’s biggest achievement, removing the club cliques that had dominated and divided England squads of the past, and instead bringing unity and mutual sense of direction. It’s certainly been his biggest priority – Southgate has an unwavering belief that a special camaraderie among the players can lead to special results on the pitch. So far, he’s been proved right.
It’s noteworthy that, when you stand daily on the side of the England training pitch at St George’s Park, as we do at Sky Sports News, the players all arrive in different pairs each time. It’s usually the two Harrys – Kane and Maguire – who walk up the stone steps first together. But, after that, it might be Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice and John Stones, Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier, Mason Mount and Kalvin Phillips – each pair chatting amiably. Club loyalties forgotten. United for their nation.
So keen is Southgate to have everyone involved and pulling in the same direction, only three outfield players have so far had no game time at this tournament: Ben Chilwell, Conor Coady and Ben White.
England have not fielded an unchanged side in consecutive matches since the semi-final of the World Cup against Croatia on July 11, 2018. Almost exactly three years of tinkering; switching attacking options to better suit an opponent’s weaknesses; swapping full-backs to better cope with an opponent’s strengths.
But those adjustments aren’t just tactical. They are also a sign of how the England manager has tried harder than ever to keep all the players in his squad involved, hungry, and ready to play if called upon. Jadon Sancho was outstanding against Ukraine in his first start in a major tournament. The 21-year-old had only played six minutes in the previous four matches.
Southgate spoke before the tournament of his disapproval of the UEFA-initiated increased squad size of 26. He was worried about how to keep so many involved, motivated. How to avoid dissension in the ranks.
In his first pitchside interview after the quarter-final win over Ukraine – in his first answer in that first interview – he said: “It’s a strange feeling because I’m actually thinking of the lads we didn’t manage to get on the pitch.” That speaks volumes of what dominates Southgate’s mind. Before he could even talk of the sensational result – a word for those who didn’t play.
It was equally significant that, on the final whistle of England’s biggest ever win in the knockout stages of a major tournament on Saturday, the England boss turned to unused substitute Jack Grealish. Hugged him. Had a quiet word in his ear. Presumably to say “don’t worry about not playing today. You’ll still have a huge part to play in the latter stages of this tournament.”
That’s a sign of Southgate’s humanity – showing emotional intelligence and understanding towards a player who probably feels a bit aggrieved he hasn’t had more game time in these Euros. Grealish has had one start, against Czech Republic, and two substitute cameos against Scotland and Germany. In that time, he’s contributed two assists, and had a hand in a third England goal.
But it’s also a sign of the England manager’s pragmatism and drive to succeed.
In speaking to Grealish like that, he was already thinking about the next game, and how he might need to turn to the Aston Villa captain to come off the bench and turn the semi-final in England’s favour, if Denmark are frustrating the attacking endeavour. A Jack Grealish who is appreciated and encouraged is a confident and dangerous Jack Grealish. He could still be a key factor in whether England win the European Championships, and Southgate knows it.
Expect an unchanged core
England’s opponents in the semi-final are also a closely-bonded group. Their unity is borne out of a wave of mutual emotion for a stricken team-mate. They’re playing in honour of Christian Eriksen, who was so cruelly and shockingly ruled out of the tournament in Denmark’s very first game. So, Wednesday night at Wembley will see a meeting of two very unified teams, each highly motivated to take one more step in the competition.
Nevertheless, don’t expect Southgate to be charitable enough to change his starting XI much, to keep his fringe players happy. He won’t give Coady, Chilwell or White a run-out. You’d expect maybe a tweak at full-back, possibly an alternative on the right-wing. But no more. The core of the team, and the cautious approach, will remain exactly as it has been so far.
Chilwell’s lack of any game time is a real surprise, given his importance to England in the last 18 months, and his outstanding form for Chelsea going into this tournament. He won the Champions League with his club a fortnight before England’s opening game of the Euros – but he hasn’t had a sniff of adding to his 14 caps.
So – a pragmatic humanity from the England manager. Southgate learned the importance of squad morale in Russia. It’s something he championed for the first time in 2018.
In Repino, the players all seemed to get on really well and enjoyed each others’ company. I remember Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford lingering for some time in the media centre there, laughing and joking together as they tried to outdo each other on the ten pin bowling lanes.
Lingard didn’t make this squad. In fact, only nine players remain from those halcyon summer days of 2018. But the bond between the players in this Euros squad is even stronger. It could yet carry them to the biggest achievement in English football for a generation.