Remember England’s golden generation of the early noughties? Sven Goren Erikson was blessed with an array of sparkling talent, so much so that he was never able to find the right formula to allow Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard to shine in the same midfield.
Ultimately, that cohort of stars failed to deliver on their promise – just like Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer, and Tony Adams in the nineties.
Then came the Three Lions’ period of despair, which started at the 2006 World Cup and culminated with Harry Kane taking corners against Iceland at the European Championship a decade later.
With all due respect to England’s class of the early 2010s, the nation’s pool of footballing talent was shallow. Matthew Upson, who rarely set the Premier League ablaze during his 131 appearances for West Ham, won 21 caps for the national team. Martin Kelly was part of the squad that travelled to Ukraine and Poland for EURO 2012.
However, the tides began to turn in the second half of 2016.
Thanks to the uncovering of Sam Allardyce’s dodgy dealings, Gareth Southgate – the guy from that Pizza Hut advert – was installed as England manager and – slowly – things started to change.
Yesterday, Southgate’s squad exorcised demons that had plagued the nation’s men’s national team for half a century.
Despite falling behind to a thunderous Mikkel Damsgaard free-kick, the Three Lions eventually roared at Wembley.
Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling struck first, forcing Simon Kjær to bundle the ball into the Danish net. Then, in the 14th-minute of the first half of extra time, Sterling was sent tumbling in the penalty area and the Three Lions were awarded a spot-kick that Harry Kane – after seeing his initial effort saved – eventually converted.
However, there was controversy.
England’s penalty was soft at best and incorrectly-awarded at worst. Before Sterling went skidding across the turf, an extra ball found its way onto the pitch. Most egregiously, a laser was pointed at Denmark goalie Kasper Schmeichel before the penalty was struck.
Regardless, England’s men (the Lionesses were runners-up at EURO 2009) will contest their first major final since 1966 on Sunday.
Before that, here are your Boar Sport report cards for England’s meteoric 2-1 win over Denmark in the semi-final of a European Championship.
Player of the Match:
Raheem Sterling: Following England’s defeat of Ukraine in the quarter-finals, I mentioned that I was running out of words to describe Raheem Sterling’s performances at the European Championship.
Again, he was simply excellent and an absolute joy to watch.
Through 120 minutes of play, Sterling completed 91 percent of his passes and lead the game in touches in the opposition’s box (16), take-ons (10), shots (six), and shots on target (three).
The boy from Brent was superb.
On a slightly more negative note, a lot has been said about the decision to award England a penalty following Sterling’s tumble in the box. I think we can demystify the topic by answering three questions.
1) Was there contact in the penalty area between Sterling and a member of the opposition? There was. In fact, Sterling received contact to the hip and knee before hitting the deck.
2) After the penalty was awarded, was VAR consulted? It was, although the video assistants opted not to encourage Danny Makkelie to reconsider his initial decision.
3) Why didn’t VAR overturn the on-field call? At the start of the tournament, UEFA instructed referees to only overturn a decision if it was completely wrong. As there was contact, it was never likely that the original decision would be changed.
Had the shoe been on the other foot (with Denmark winning the game thanks to a similarly dubious penalty), England fans would be incredibly upset. In fact, Mark Clattenburg put it best:
It was soft. It was cheap. But it doesn’t undermine the quality of Sterling’s performance, he was electric.
Harry Maguire: A stalwart in defence since his return from injury, Harry Maguire was in tremendous form against the Danes, winning 13 duels as England limited Denmark to 0.27 xG through 120 minutes.
Luke Shaw: With 11 progressives carries against Denmark, Luke Shaw maintained his high levels of offensive production in the semi-final. Federico Chiesa will pose difficult questions of the Manchester United full-back in the final – although the same could be said of Emerson’s upcoming battle with Bukayo Saka.
Kyle Walker: With both centre-backs dragged across to the left side of the pitch, Kyle Walker was forced to make a key recovery run on nine minutes. Although the 31-year-old’s pace is important to Southgate’s defensive scheme, it is Walker’s ability to read the game that truly makes the difference.
John Stones: Like the rest of England’s defence, John Stones was rock solid – the Yorkshireman has enjoyed one hell of a redemption arc.
Bukayo Saka: Had the European Championship taken place in 2020, Bukayo Saka would have been nowhere near the squad. Instead, the twelve-month delay has allowed the Arsenal starlet to burst onto the scene and enter Southgate’s circle of trust.
The 19-year-old returned to the line up after missing England’s quarter-final match through injury and looked comfortable throughout. Saka, most impressively, significantly dampened Joakim Maehle’s impact on proceedings. The kid is special.
Declan Rice: It is well-documented that Southgate operates with a “boring” double pivot. Rather than attack the opposition, Declan Rice is asked to protect England’s back four. Thankfully, Rice does his job well – he has made more interceptions (10) than misplaced passes (nine) since the end of the group stage.
Kalvin Phillips: Kalvin Phillips made nine ball recoveries, four successful tackles, and 14 passes into the final third against Denmark. The Leeds United metronome also happened to cover every blade of grass – putting his time under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa to good use.
Jack Grealish: Despite being re-substituted after just 35 minutes on the pitch, Jack Grealish helped England up the tempo in the second half of regulation time.
Jordan Henderson: Calm, composed, confident. Jordan Henderson added a sense of stability to England’s midfield when they needed it in extra time.
Phil Foden: Like Grealish, Phil Foden looked bright during his substitute appearance. It also speaks volumes that Southgate felt comfortable entering the Manchester City playmaker into proceedings with the game tied at 1-1 in extra time.
Harry Kane: Harry Kane is another player who has proven his doubters wrong of late.
Having started the tournament poorly, Kane has played a pivotal role for England during the knockout phase of the competition. In fact, the Spurs forward could yet win the Golden Boot – he sits just one goal behind Patrik Schick and Cristiano Ronaldo in the goal-scoring race.
Kane’s performance against Denmark, though, was not perfect. The 27-year-old is incredibly lucky that his saved penalty rebounded in a manner that allowed him to fire home at the second time of asking. More concerningly, Kane’s preference for dropping into midfield made life too easy for Denmark’s defence. England’s captain must do a better job of occupying Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in the final.
Jordan Pickford: After starting the tournament tremendously, Jordan Pickford has trailed off lately. When England needed a clam head between the posts, the Everton shot-stopper’s kicking deserted him.
Should Pickford have saved Damsgaard’s free-kick? Possibly, although his view was obscured by Denmark’s offensive wall.
Nothing To See:
Kieran Trippier: Introduced at the start of the second half of extra time, Kieran Trippier’s cameo marked a change of shape for England. With the Three Lions shifting from a 4-2-3-1 to a 5-2-3, Trippier was dependable from right wing-back.
At full-time, I took to Twitter to ask my followers for their thoughts on the game. Let’s take a look.
On the question of whether Saka should remain in the XI:
So, that's what you thought - which means that it is time for my final thoughts.
First of all, Southgate must be commended for lining up his side in a back four because it greatly enhanced England's ability to press high up the pitch.
Second, Southgate and Grealish should be praised for how professionally they dealt with the sub on-sub off situation. The Three Lions boss has found his ruthless streak.
Finally, Sterling's relationship with Shaw will be vital against the Italians: Giovanni Di Lorenzo could be in for a long evening.
EURO 2020 Final: England v Italy, Wembley Stadium, Sunday 11 July, 20:00