EURO 2020.com’s England reporter Simon Hart rides the wave of boundless optimism as Gareth Southgate’s side head into the semi-final against Denmark.
They shall not pass
England are the only semi-finalists still to concede a goal. Indeed they are the first team since Italy at the 1990 FIFA World Cup to have achieved five successive clean sheets from the start of a World Cup or EURO.
For Walter Zenga then, read Jordan Pickford now – a goalkeeper in the form of his life as showed by the big saves made against Scotland’s Stephen O’Donnell and Germany’s Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. In front of him we have seen Kyle Walker and John Stones celebrate defensive actions as if they were goals while Harry Maguire’s return has added aerial power as well as authority. Add the work of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips as the defensive midfielders in front of them and the overall result is a team second only to Italy for allowing the fewest shots on target – a total of ten from their five matches.
This is an England squad with a rare togetherness and sense of mission. “I’ve seen a lot of nations go out of tournaments because the spirit hasn’t been like these boys have got,” said manager Gareth Southgate on Saturday night. He plays his part by forever highlighting the contribution of those players not actually playing and this unity of purpose is something the senior players – who have known less happy times – are swift to mention.
“That’s the best squad I’ve seen in terms of that in a tournament,” said Jordan Henderson, citing how the players celebrate goals together. It is all thanks to Southgate and the team-first culture he has created, according to skipper Kane. “He just brings a real calmness to the squad, a real togetherness,” he said. “The most important thing for him is for us to be together – whether you’re playing, you’re on the bench, or in the squad, it a real team environment and we’re all pushing in the same direction.”
When England reached the semi-finals at Russia 2018, it was their first time in the last four of a major tournament since EURO ’96. Three years on, Southgate and his squad can draw not only on that experience but on the subsequent semi-final played the following summer in the UEFA Nations League.
In both of those semi-finals – against Croatia, then the Netherlands – they lost a first-half lead and succumbed in extra time. Southgate reflected in Rome that “teams have to go on a bit of a journey and they have to go through some pain sometimes to be able to progress” and lessons seem to have been learned from those “painful nights” judging by the control and composure they have showed after taking the lead in matches so far. That 13 members of the squad have played in major European club finals can only help too.
Forwards on a roll
England have not one but two world-class forwards exuding menace. Raheem Sterling’s excellence has been a constant since day one against Croatia and brought England’s first three goals of this tournament.
Now Harry Kane has joined the party too. His mojo restored by his late header against Germany, he looked the Kane of old with two more goals in Rome and combined beautifully with Sterling for the first, profiting from the No10’s magnificent disguised pass which took out five Ukraine players.
It was Sterling’s sixth assist for Kane with England – not only the most productive supply line involving two England players this century but evidence that the Manchester City man does not just commit defenders and score goals, he creates them too.
The Wembley factor
As Kane has spelled out, for England this is a semi-final “in our national stadium”. The electricity which crackled around the ground during the Germany match will be there for Kane and Co to plug into once more – and even more so on Wednesday night with 60,000 in attendance. England’s record there since Russia 2018 is impressive with 14 wins from 17 matches.
On the other hand…
If England have the mood and the momentum, so too have Denmark, a team “riding a wave of emotion” as Southgate put it. Moreover, the Danes won at Wembley only last October, the first foreign visitors to win under the arch since Spain in September 2018.
That was the afternoon of Harry Maguire’s costly first-half dismissal – a reminder that it only takes one error to turn a match (and Southgate’s men got away with one last time at Wembley when a rare Sterling misstep left Thomas Müller breaking clear on goal).