It could have been Sam Allardyce.
While there were be few England fans left bemoaning Gareth Southgate still having the job, it would be important to remember that he wouldn’t have had the job if Allardyce didn’t get caught in one of the dumber bribery scandals in recent history and cost himself the job just 67 days into it. For however long, Three Lions fans could have been treated to England booting the ball up to whatever shaved ape Allardyce installed at forward (and was the only player in the opposing half), while Wayne Rooney still toddled around midfield, before Allardyce spent the postgame interviews decrying how much the other team cost out of reflex. That’s the team England could have built, which honestly wouldn’t have looked all that different from England under Sven-Goran Eriksson, having John Terry punt the ball into either corner with Michael Owen or Rooney hopelessly chasing it, but I digress.
As England prepares for their first final since 1966 (maybe you’ve heard), and every non-England fan desperately tries to point out the luck involved in getting past Denmark, everyone should be glad that slice of luck saved us all from Allardyce. It also should be noted that Southgate is the most successful England manager already. He’s managed semifinals in consecutive major tournaments, which no other manager can claim. That’s probably more of an indictment of the England program overall, but them’s the facts.
Now comes the final hurdle, and the last block England have to get over. Despite the size of the population, despite the standing of the Premier League for over a decade now, England have had a hard time seeing themselves on the same level as Italy, or Spain, or Germany, or France. Whenever they’d run up against one of these giants in tourneys (or Portugal, in 2004 and 2006), you’d hear the hushed laments. “Their players come from Juventus or Madrid or Barcelona or Milan…” as if they weren’t the same clubs that the top of the English game tangled with in the Champions League year after year, but kingdoms from myth that no mortal human would ever see. How can our boys who brave the cold and rain on Wednesday nights in Stoke ever compete with the celestial beings from the continent?
That was all rooted in the technical gap between England and the rest of the field. English players simply didn’t have the touch, control, and vision that their continental counterparts had (and at this point it’s fun to point out that the shortcomings of the England and USMNT were strikingly similar in the recent past). Even England’s best generation — Beckham, Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard — were worshipped for their energy and heart and athleticism far more than their ability to weave through a midfield. England would get passed to death, and anytime they attempted to take a touch amongst defenders or in crowds the ball would explode. At the highest level, their lack of nous was always exposed.
But this isn’t that England, and when they line up on Sunday, they’ll actually have the squad that is far more accomplished in the club game than Italy. For all the plaudits and esteem Giorgio Chellini and Leonardo Bonucci get, neither of them have a Champions League title to their name. Mason Mount does, along with Italy’s Jorginho. Jordan Henderson does. Sterling and Walker and Kane have appeared in Champions League finals more recently.
Italy’s front-line is composed of a player who plays for the fifth-placed Serie A team (Insigne), the sixth-place one (Immobile), and the fourth-placed one (Chiesa). Meanwhile, England can boast Raheem Sterling, the best player on its best team just two seasons ago, Harry Kane, who spearheaded a Champions League finalist two years ago as well. John Stones and Kyle Walker were both just part of the best defensive team in the best league with Man City. When it comes to resume, England do not have to feel sheepish in the slightest.
What that will mean on the field is what’s giving England fans the heebie-jeebies right now, because it always has. England have never been able to play their way out of trouble, resorting to long balls, losing possession, ending up defending all game, surrendering when they get exhausted. Familiar tale.
But this England team can do everything Spain just did to Italy that rendered them punchless for long stretches. They have the midfield to crowd out Jorginho and Verratti. They can force Italy into long balls (the real ballsy call would be to bring in Henderson’s greater activity to disrupt Italy even more, but Southgate will show up to Wembley in a Motorhead t-shirt before he changes the lineup that much). Maguire and Stones are both capable of passing or dribbling their way through a press (Maguire especially). Kalvin Phillips can set the tempo from midfield while under pressure, though he looked a little ropey at times against Denmark.
Mount and Kane can make Jorginho’s head spin by using the space around him at the base of Italy’s midfield, and confuse the Italians even more with Sterling or Saka or Grealish joining them from the wings. Or they can blow past it on the counter through any of those as well. They have the ability, which no England team has ever had before. Or Grealish can dance through the raindrops and draw the 87 fouls per match he averages.
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