LONDON — In the end, football didn’t come home and it was the same old story for England.
As the whole of England stopped to watch their team in a major final, they got that familiar sinking feeling as another painful chapter was added to a seemingly never-ending tale of tournament woe.
The Three Lions lost to Italy in the EURO 2020 final at Wembley, their home, as Gareth Southgate suffered the familiar pain of losing on penalty kicks, this time as England manager in front of over 66,000 (mostly English) fans.
Football was so close to coming home, but it didn’t.
With England in their first major final since 1966, and playing in front of at raucous crowd at their home stadium, they got off to a flying start when Luke Shaw put them 1-0 up after two minutes.
Three Lions fail to bring it home
But that was the worst thing to happen to England and turned out to be their first, and only, shot on target in the game.
They then sat back and allowed Italy back into it, as Southgate failed to used his incredibly strong bench and the Three Lions dropped deeper and deeper and Leonardo Bonucci (who screamed ‘it’s coming to Rome’ at the final whistle) equalized in the second half and Italy looked the more likely to win in regulation with 20 attempts and 62 percent of possession.
The most painful thing for Southgate and his players is that England didn’t take the chance to bring it home even though the European title was there for the taking.
England lost 3-2 on penalty kicks, with Southgate left to console teenager Bukayo Saka who missed the final penalty kick, as he joins Southgate and many other England internationals as the player who will be remembered for penalty kick failure.
LUKE SHAW. pic.twitter.com/epnWUVUViJ
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) July 11, 2021
Asked about Saka having his penalty kick saved to confirm England’s pain, Southgate took the blame.
“That it is down to me. I decided on the penalty takers based on what I’ve seen in training,” Southgate told the BBC. “Nobody is on their own. We’ve won together as a team and it is absolutely on all of us, in terms of not being able to win the game tonight, but in terms of the penalties. That is my call. That totally rests with me.”
Should Southgate take the blame for England losing the final?
Southgate is a decent and honest man and many of his big calls were key in taking England to this final and giving them a chance at glory.
The switch to a back three against Germany. Bringing Saka in. The decision to play Rice and Phillips in central midfield. They were all key.
But he will also know, deep down, that some of his calls in this final were too defensive and too cautious.
He went with 3-4-3 from the start, which worked for the opening 25 minutes, but then Italy figured it out and Southgate had no answer.
England reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, which worked okay, but Southgate left Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford (who both missed their penalty kicks) on the bench until the 120th minute and gave Jack Grealish too little time to make an impact.
“They played so well in the first half of a final where the expectation and pressure was so high,” Southgate said. “In the end we haven’t been able to keep the ball well enough in the second period of normal time, especially, that invited more and more pressure. That is something we know we have to better at. That time to analyze that in-depth is not at this moment, really.”
GOALLL! Leonardo Bonucci equalizes for Italy. Verratti's header pushed onto the post, and Bonucci sweeps home the rebound.
— Joe Prince-Wright (@JPW_NBCSports) July 11, 2021
Southgate has huge resources at his disposal and one of the best squads England has ever had, but his lack of big-game experience as a coach was shown up in this final.
Asked if England’s fans will be behind him and his team as they have now reached the World Cup semifinal and European Championship final in back-to-back major tournaments, Southgate hoped so.
“We built strong bonds in Russia [2018 World Cup] and that has continued through this tournament,” Southgate said. “Tonight the balloon has burst, hasn’t it? And the feeling around the country will be very empty I know, that is hard for everybody to take.
“We wanted to give everybody one more night and to continue the biggest party ever. We haven’t been able to do that. I hope we have given everybody some incredible memories and the players especially should feel very proud of what they’ve done.”
Fans backed this England side throughout this tournament and lined up at bars at 6am for an 8pm kick off, the Queen and Prime Minister wished them well and spoke of their pride as they inspired an entire nation.
Only for the same story to unfold once again.
But this does feel a little different. This England squad is so young and so talented that they can recover from this crushing blow.
The future is bright for Southgate’s boys
Since the last 16 loss to Iceland at EURO 2016, England’s young squad has come a long way under Southgate and there is huge promise for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
But there’s no doubt that they let this opportunity slip.
Southgate and his players must be savvier and more ruthless.
That is their biggest takeaway from what has been a hugely positive tournament on so many fronts.
But in the end, like they usually do, England lost on penalties.
“For certain this team can get better and can improve,” Southgate told the BBC. “You can see the number of young players we have blooded in this tournament who have been absolutely fantastic. The future, I need a bit of time to reflect on that.”
“The devastation of getting so close and not giving the trophy to the country that we wanted to,” Southgate continued. “That is difficult to put into words at moment. In terms of the players they have given everything and I am very proud of them.”