After living almost a quarter of a century in England and covering the national team for much of that time, I can tell you this race to the semi-final is different. (In a good way, I hasten to add, although that obviously doesn’t mean they’ll win Euro 2020 because, history shows, they don’t usually end up with a trophy.)
Make no mistake, some things are the same. Few countries, at least among the “bigger” nations, have the capacity to go from ecstasy to despondency on the basis of a single outcome, for example.
Win and you’ll hear from experts and fans – at least those who make the most noise – about how, deep down, England can beat anyone and how everyone with Three Lions on their shirt is. “world class” or as they like to say “pretty much”. Lose it and they are hopeless inept at best, a spoiled and ungrateful heap of selfless stains on national character at worst.
That’s not to say that media and supporters in other countries don’t get carried away when they excel, or turn into angry villagers with pitchforks and torches when they underperform. They certainly do; it’s just that there is normally no 180 degree turnaround from game to game.
But while that part hasn’t changed about England, which has a lot to do with the man running the team, Gareth Southgate, and a little bit with the type of players that make up his squad. Here are five ways that side is different.
1. Southgate is friendly, humble and normal
The England manager is probably more accessible than any of his seven permanent predecessors. Recall that the list includes a guy who lost his job after saying he believed in reincarnation and the disabled were being punished for sins in a previous life (Glenn Hoddle), a guy who quit at the improvised in a post-game interview with Wembley (Kevin Keegan), a guy who had an affair with a Football Association employee and was duped by a man dressed as a wealthy sheikh (Sven Goran Eriksson), a guy who has resigned because the FA forced him to strip his armband captain (Fabio Capello) and a guy who had to leave after just one game because of an undercover injection that saw him talk about “breaking the rules To register players (Sam Allardyce).
Now, there is context and another side to all of the above and none of that means these were worse managers than Southgate; in fact, from a purely football perspective, most were arguably better. But it does mean the current England boss has managed to avoid controversy and drama to a degree that others have not. Plus, he’s done it while still being humble and serious, traits that people find appealing.
2. Southgate is not unduly influenced by the media
Whether playing Kieran Trippier at the rear left (and does not play Ben chilwell at all), stick to Kalvin phillips in the middle of the field, doing Rahim sterling a match or a departure Bukayo Saka against Germany, Southgate made a series of decisions that most could describe as well outside of popular wisdom. The same popular wisdom, that is, that forced former shoehorn managers Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and, at times, Paul Scholes in the same midfield.
Southgate also doesn’t panic when performances leave critics unhappy, like the 0-0 draw against Scotland or the second half against Czech Republic in the group stage, which the latter saw England manage to score 0.0 expected Goals (which is frankly difficult to do).
He has a plan, he sticks to it and he knows that, if he can be judged in the short term on the quality of the play of his teams (and therefore risk being mistreated by the media), in the long term, he will be judged on their progress. tournaments (and, so far, everything is fine).
Southgate gets a basic concept that others seem to miss: club football – with its 38-game league season – typically rewards teams that attack and play well, creating more than they concede. Tournament football, on the other hand, is a different animal, where risk-taking is discouraged.
France won in the last World Cup by essentially sitting deep, not conceding and waiting for the superstars on the other end to do something special. England hasn’t gone that far – and maybe not, given that Philips isn’t Paul pogba, Declan rice is not N’Golo Kante, Sterling is not Antoine Griezmann and there is no Kylian Mbappé in sight – but the concept is no different.
3. The English players seem to want to be there
After most of the disappointments of the tournament in recent years, the English media were investigating what was wrong. It would be a familiar process. The manager’s decisions would be criticized (always) and usually there would be a big theory, sometimes involving an individual scapegoat, like David Beckham in 1998 or David Seaman in 2002 or Wayne rooney most of the time, and sometimes by noting a collective breach of duty.
Inevitably, another of the upcoming sub-themes was whether these players really wanted to wear the Three Lions and if there were any infighting that tore the group apart. Eriksson remarked on how the players ate and hung out with their club-mates, other managers explained how the players felt “less protected” with England than at club level and still others noted how players thought it was a “chore” given the environment around the national team.
And when the going got tough, there was, punctual as always, a story that made its way into the national media. Maybe if England is beaten by Denmark Wednesday (3 p.m. ET, LIVE on ESPN), the cycle will be repeated.
I don’t think so, however, as there was none after the World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia in 2018 and everything suggests that, unlike past expeditions, there is no poison in this English camp. Credit goes not only to Southgate, but to this group of players as well.
4. This group has the right mix of leaders and infantry.
There is no doubt that in terms of strength in depth, especially in the attacking positions, this England is as strong as any non-French speaking team in Europe. But there is also humility towards the players Southgate has entrusted the most over the past few weeks. There are very few dominant male types, eyes on me and superstars among regulars, compared to last year.
Rice, Phillips and Jordan pickford watch the Champions League on TV. The three Man City players are important to their club without being essential, partly because of Pep Guardiola’s strong collective ethic, partly because of the talent around them. Mason frame is not yet an A-lister. Luke Shaw plays for Man United, but has had their share of setbacks. Harry maguire is a natural leader, but was in Hull City until the age of 24.
The only exception is Harry kane, who has carried Tottenham on his back for many years, but in terms of ego and personality he will not be confused with Zlatan Ibrahimovic soon. It’s a blue collar team for a blue collar style of play, with a lot of talent and game changers spinning in and out of the bench, be it Jadon Sancho or Phil foden or Jack Grealish or Saka. It’s not a team built around two or three individuals – arguably Kane aside, although you’ve seen him go long stretches of service and he hasn’t complained – and that makes him different.
5. Success breeds success and confidence
It also looks different for the simple reason that many players know what national team success looks like. England have only reached the semifinals of major tournaments six times, with Southgate and much of that team having made it twice, as has Sir Alf Ramsey and Co. in 1966 and 1968.
England had spent more than 20 years without reaching the bottom four in a competition, before Southgate took them there in Russia. That doesn’t mean the pressure is off, but that’s not trivial, because once a cycle begins it’s hard to slow down.
Once you have experienced something meaningful, it becomes easier to do it again. This England side don’t play arrogantly, but the players seem to have a quiet confidence. And it can be even more important.
Southgate’s England managed to break the feedback loop of drama and disappointment. Not necessarily in playing better football or having better players – at least in terms of who comes onto the pitch – but in the way they behave and the way the environment in the camp projects beyond ‘them.
It may not be entirely up to the manager. Maybe it’s the players. Perhaps it is the fans and the media who, after 18 months of the pandemic, are just a little more relaxed and happy and want to highlight the positives.
It may or may not be enough to win the Euro as well, but it’s a hell of a different sight from the past.