England players are hurting right now, but the experience of reaching a major tournament final and losing will ultimately be an important learning curve for them.
This was one of the youngest squads at Euro 2020. Only three of the 26 players named in the final squad were 30 or older, 10 of them were 23 or younger and 18 had fewer than 30 senior international caps when the tournament began. The bulk of them can be together for years to come, with at least three or four tournament cycles to apply the lessons they have learned.
But the same also goes for Gareth Southgate, who will arguably have learned more about himself as a coach and manager than had England beaten Italy and won a first international trophy in 55 years. During ITV’s final coverage, Emma Hayes said coaches and player always learn from a defeat.
Southgate has done incredible things for England in his almost five years in charge. From a fan’s perspective he wasn’t an obvious choice to replace to Sam Allardyce in 2016, an FA man promoted from within without a particularly outwardly visible record of proven success.
But the ‘obvious choices’ had never quite worked out for England in the past.
Southgate has changed the culture within the England squad, turned the relationship with the media back into a positive one and brought the national team back into the hearts of fans.
In 2018, he delivered a first international semi-final since 1996 when England reached the last four of the World Cup. There has been similar success as an ‘A’ country in the UEFA Nations League, while reaching the Euro 2020 final was a step beyond any England side since 1966.
England and Southgate should be praised for what they achieved precisely because it has been so long. But there is far more to come and fans and pundits alike couldn’t shake the idea that the team were playing with the handbrake on throughout the tournament.
Southgate understandably favoured a safety first approach in his tactics and his team selection. It had major upside as England kept five consecutive clean sheets from the group stage to the quarter-finals. They only conceded twice in seven games in total and not at all from open play, as well as being unbeaten over 90 or 120 minutes from start to finish.
However, it appeared to be at the detriment to the squad’s attacking talent, with incredible depth that was the envy of every team in the tournament. The biggest problem for Southgate was figuring out how he could possibly use Jack Grealish, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Sterling and Saka were both outstanding in the tournament. But Kane was starved of direct service in a lot of games, while Grealish and Sancho started just once each, Rashford never started, and Foden was left out of the matchday squad altogether for the final itself.
Gary Lineker tweeted after the final, “I think going forward England have to find a way of being more attack minded. Braver in possession and throwing more people forward. We have the forward talent to scare teams, at present we seem scared ourselves to release that talent.”
That is on Southgate to figure out between now and the 2022 World Cup in less than 18 months’ time. But, learning from that and adapting the approach, England can also look forward with optimism to Euro 2024 in Germany and the 2026 World Cup in North America.