Gareth Southgate undone by lack of boldness as England falter at the last

Sport

There was no escaping history in the end. Twenty-five years on, England’s past caught up with them. There was no fairytale ending. No redemption.

This time it was Bukayo Saka who felt the ground fall from under his feet, who buried his face in his shirt, who experienced the agony Gareth Southgate felt when he missed the vital spot-kick against Germany during Euro 96.

Perhaps it had to be this way. England have broken down so many barriers under Southgate, shattered so many taboos, but this was one hurdle too far.

A team who have given the country so much joy during the past month could not find the answer when the heat was truly on, succumbing at the last to Roberto Mancini’s spiky, defiant, talented Italy.

There will be talk of bad luck. It will be impossible not to look back at Marcus Rashford’s penalty kissing the post when England were ahead in the shootout. Yet there will also be difficult questions to answer in the cold light of day.

For Southgate, a first appearance in a major final since the 1966 World Cup will not be enough. There can be no excuses, no attempt to paint penalties as a lottery when the harsh reality is that England were too cautious, too slow to make changes and too willing to sit back on their slender lead when Italy increased the pressure in the second half.

Control has been the theme for England all tournament. Here, however, their attempts at containment backfired. The harsh reality is that England did not do enough after Luke Shaw made them dream that all those years of hurt were about to come to an end. Damningly, they found a way to neutralise Harry Kane, failing to work their striker into positions where he could truly hurt Italy.

It was an oversight from Southgate. Kane did not have a good look at Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s goalkeeper, until he stepped up to blast home England’s first penalty. Raheem Sterling rarely had room to run in behind and Italy’s defenders could not believe their luck. They sailed through most of the game and Southgate did not respond, waiting until Italy had hauled themselves level before giving his side more options on the ball by bringing on Saka.

For Southgate’s critics, it will be tempting to jab at how he has used England’s creative talents all tournament, often keeping Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden back. Reverting to a back three was a gamble that left Kane and Sterling too isolated. It became a back seven too easily, even though England were a force of nature at first.

England’s goal was a wing-back to wing-back affair, sparked by Kane dropping deep to spread the play out to Kieran Trippier on the right. The cross was deep and Shaw arrived, picking a good moment to volley in his first England goal.

Southgate sensed a plan coming together. England were tight and combative, smothering Italy and forcing them into harmless areas. At the other end, though, Southgate’s forwards struggled. Sterling, moved to the right, did not have enough opportunities to test Giorgio Chiellini’s pace. Mason Mount was pressing the ball rather than dictating the play. Kane went through the 120 minutes without having a meaningful shot.

Around the half-hour mark, Italy put together a long, sustained spell of passing, rotating the ball cleverly, finding the angles, making England’s midfielders run. It was a bad sign. It started to feel like Moscow, the mind drifting back to Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic taking the game away from England when they lost their World Cup semi-final to Croatia in 2018.

This felt too familiar. It happened when Frenkie De Jong dominated England in their Nations League semi-final defeat to the Netherlands two years ago and there were long spells when Italy’s midfielders were too smooth for England, hard though the enterprising Declan Rice tried to resist alongside Kalvin Phillips.

The longer it went on, the longer Jorginho and Marco Verratti kept the ball away from Rice and Phillips, the more England rushed their clearances, the more likely an equaliser became. So it proved. England were too deep and they paid for it, the goal messy when it arrived, Leonardo Bonucci bundling in from a corner.

Only then did Southgate react, bringing on Saka for Trippier and switching to 4-3-3. Yet England remained rushed and imprecise, creating few opportunities, Kane still a peripheral figure. Italy looked stronger, going close to a winner on a couple of occasions. Penalties felt like England’s best chance and Southgate adjusted accordingly, bringing on Rashford and Jadon Sancho with the seconds ticking away in extra-time.

Yet England could not control the variables. They could not escape their past. They will be back, contenders at the World Cup next year, but Southgate will always wonder if he could have been bolder.