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World Cup: What England should have learned from Euro 2020

It could have been up there with the 1966 World Cup final as one of England's greatest-ever days but last summer's European Championship final ended in a painful penalties defeat to Italy at Wembley.

This article was originally published on 17 November 2022

A year on from the agonising spot-kicks loss, what shape are the Three Lions in now? And have they learned their lessons from the Azzurri's victory?

Penalties agony was hard to take

First up, it's pertinent to point out that losing on penalties in a big tournament final is probably the harshest way to go down. So near but, ultimately, so far, for an England side who - in all honesty - may have punched above their weight to even reach the showpiece game last summer.

Setting aside the off-field controversies that marred the final occasion for plenty and concentrating on the football, England got off to a flyer on the night with Luke Shaw's early goal.

However, in a similar way to the World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia three years earlier had played out - when they went in front in the first half through Kieran Trippier's free-kick - England failed to kick on. Instead that early goal seemed to transmit a sense of fear into the Three Lions players and a more timid, defensive, tactical approach ensued.

Tactics eventually backfired

It was, like it had been in Russia, a case of trying to have what you hold rather than going all out for victory and punishing an opponent who had started slowly.

Inevitably, Italy hit back and when Leonardo Bonucci equalised midway through the second half, anyone of a neutral persuasion were left to admit it was only what Roberto Mancini's side deserved.

Therefore, there may be a min-lesson in how the final developed for Gareth Southgate to take on board, even if it is now fading into distant memory 12 months later.

Critics of the former Middlesbrough boss say he's a solid pair of hands in charge and, for all his eloquence and decency in the press room, he's a limited coach who prefers to adopt, to his detriment, a more conservative, defensive gameplan when it matters most.

Certainly, it appeared at the time that injecting a bit more attacking thrust a year ago at a bouncing Wembley and England could have gone on and scored a couple more and beaten Italy there and then in the first half.

Instead - and this is with the caveat of hindsight, of course - they allowed the Azzurri back in and ended up regretting it.

Lessons to learn for Qatar

When the World Cup comes around in Qatar towards the end of the year, Southgate and his coaching staff may decide to approach a big semi-final or final - if England progress that far - in a slightly more adventurous way. Risk may just offer a significant reward.

If we go by results alone, then there's a strong argument to suggest that England have gone backwards in the past 12 months.

Yes, qualification for Qatar was secured easily enough and the Italy defeat was followed by a seven-game unbeaten sequence during the remainder of 2021, as Southgate's men won five times and scored a whopping 30 goals in the process.

Handsome victories over international minnows like Andorra and San Marino, however, count for little in the grand scheme of things.

This current Three Lions side can probably be better judged on more recent outings. Comfortable friendly wins over both Switzerland and the Ivory Coast maintained momentum nicely enough in March, before an alarming dip in form in their recent Nations League outings.

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Nations League not necessarily a true reflection

However, there were mitigating circumstances. Whoever decided the best time for four Nations League games was right on the back of a gruelling club season in early June needs to have a rethink.

England's key players were clearly jaded and performances dipped noticeably on the international stage.

Draws against Italy and Germany were respectable enough, but successive defeats to Hungary - the most recent being a 4-0 humbling in Wolverhampton which was their biggest home defeat since 1928 - mean Southgate's side could face the embarrassing scenario of relegation down to Nations League Group B.

In the wake of the Hungary Molineux debacle, the England coach even went as far to suggest he knows he could be on borrowed time unless he is able to oversee a swift improvement in results.

Italy and Germany up next

England have time to gather themselves and reveal their true identity as one of the World Cup favourites by getting back on track in games against Italy and Germany again in the Nations League towards the end of September, before the build-up to the World Cup really begins in late autumn.

Southgate's men are 11/2 to be crowned world champions in Qatar, Brazil are on offer at 9/2 and reigning champions France are 6/1.

And it's safe to say that unless there's some sort of dramatic, unexpected incident then it will be Southgate - waistcoat or otherwise - who will be in the dugout for the first-ever winter World Cup.

For many, that will be just fine. He has, after all, got the country to a World Cup semi and a European Championship final in the space of three years. On paper, he's the Three Lions' most successful coach since Sir Alf Ramsey.

Can Southgate inspire next step?

The nagging feeling for plenty of fans, however, is that he's probably not the right man to get them over that final hurdle and end England's long wait for silverware either.

Some supporters still yearn for a more charismatic, passionate and positive manager, but when assessing if there's any potential candidates to take over, there really isn't anyone of that ilk - with a successful international CV - who stands out.

So Southgate will be determined to prove the doubters wrong with a strong autumn and successful World Cup to prove the painful recent defeats in big tournaments were just stepping stones to greater glory.

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