England will need some time to recover from their penalty shootout defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, but the countdown to the 2022 World Cup has already begun. It will be 499 days between the end of Euro 2020 and the opening game of the next World Cup in Qatar, and the turnaround is tight.
For England the long, agonising wait for international success goes on following Italy’s triumph at Wembley. It is 55 years and counting since the last — and only — major trophy was lifted by an England captain, when Bobby Moore held aloft the World Cup in 1966, so what is another 18 months if Euro 2020 proves to be the catalyst for glory in Qatar?
If England need proof that seemingly endless waits can have a joyous ending, they only need to watch Lionel Messi‘s reaction to finally winning an international trophy with Argentina, who ended their 28-year Copa America drought with Saturday’s 1-0 victory in the final against Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Good times and glory can be enjoyed, even by those teams who appear to be stuck in a perpetual cycle of near misses. Yes, even England.
But in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s defeat to Italy, emotions within the England camp will be raw. There will be a tendency, inside and out, to lurch to extremes and either hype up the promise of the country’s young talent or bemoan the perennial failure to get over the line and win as Italy, Germany, France and Spain have done repeatedly since England last achieved anything of note.
England manager Gareth Southgate has already said he needs to time to digest the disappointment of the Euro 2020 final and recalibrate, both mentally and physically, after taking his team so close to winning the tournament. He says his instinct is to continue in charge until Qatar, but nonetheless left enough doubt hanging in the air to suggest that he has yet to convince himself fully that it is the right thing to do.
But despite going so close to winning Euro 2020, England and Southgate must iron out flaws that were exposed in the tournament. The team and manager ultimately whipped a desperate nation into a frenzy of belief by reaching the final, but let’s not forget that this was the same team and manager who were booed at the end of a 0-0 draw against Scotland in the group stage just three weeks ago. No international team does boom and bust quite like England and it leads to a lack of focus and scrutiny of the positives and negatives, with emotion too often being allowed to colour judgement and analysis. One of Southgate’s strengths is his ability to tread a steady path between the cheerleading and condemnation, but his cautious, deliberate approach has also proved to be a weakness and something which may be holding the team back.
If England are to go all the way in Qatar, Southgate must shed that caution and put greater trust in the attacking players who were under-used during Euro 2020. Marcus Rashford (84 minutes) and Jadon Sancho (97) were both given fewer than 100 minutes on the pitch during England’s seven games, while Phil Foden (159) and Jack Grealish (172) were also used sporadically. When asked why he waited so long to introduce Rashford and Sancho from the substitutes’ bench against Italy — the pair had less than two minutes on the pitch before taking, and missing, penalties in the shootout — Southgate spoke about the need to “have the right balance” and insisted: “You can lose the game by getting the balance wrong.” Southgate is right, but his answer to that question summed up his personality and tactical approach. Some coaches — Manchester City‘s Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool, Italy’s Roberto Mancini — will gamble with bold changes designed to win, while others like AS Roma boss Jose Mourinho and Southgate will regard that as too risky and play it safe.
Expecting Southgate to go against his natural instincts and become a more adventurous coach is perhaps unlikely, but England has an abundance of attacking talent and it is a waste of that ability to constantly play with the handbrake on. And between now and Qatar 2022, those attacking riches are likely to grow. Harry Kane will be 29 years old by the time the World Cup comes around while Raheem Sterling and Grealish will be 27. Rashford (25), Sancho (22) and Foden (22) will still be approaching their peak years, while Saka will be 21 with one tournament campaign already under his belt. Manchester United‘s Mason Greenwood, who missed this tournament due to injury, will also be 21 and almost certainly a regular for club and country by the time we reach Qatar.
Southgate has an array of attacking talent that can deliver success for England, but he has to find a way to get more from it. During Euro 2020, while England were unbeaten in seven games in actual playing time, they only really cut loose and impressed in the 4-0 quarterfinal win against Ukraine. The other games were tense, low-scoring affairs which could have gone either way, so it would be a mistake to suggest England were a free-flowing joy to watch.
The foundations are there, however, for that to happen in Qatar if Southgate is prepared to alter his approach and play to his team’s strengths. In midfield, Jude Bellingham is likely to be a starter by the time Qatar comes around and the Borussia Dortmund youngster will add drive and penetration to the team. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold will also be back in the equation after missing Euro 2020 through injury and Tottenham Hotspur‘s Dele Alli may rediscover his best form and become an England regular again. Jordan Henderson, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier who will all be 32 when the World Cup kicks off, may be the only players to drop out of the squad before the World Cup, so Southgate’s team will surely benefit from another 18 months of experience and development.
The building blocks are there for England to create a World Cup-winning team in Qatar, but it all now depends on the man charged with putting it all together. Southgate has taken England to a new level since taking over in 2016 and progress has clearly been made, yet unless he changes his own approach, he is in danger of holding the team back. He needs to be bolder and braver, otherwise the cycle of failure will continue.