England vs Denmark: Three Lions have big chance to show that lessons have been learned

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England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans after the Euro 2020 Quarter Final match at the Stadio Olimpico, Rome (PA Wire)
England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans after the Euro 2020 Quarter Final match at the Stadio Olimpico, Rome (PA Wire)

England stand on the brink of a first European Championship Final, but for Gareth Southgate tonight’s meeting with Denmark remains “just another match”.

Southgate has no interest in hoodoos or historic failures — personal or national — and his pre-match routine will be unchanged before England’s first Euros semi-final in 25 years.

The manager will address the players for the final time before the match in a meeting at the team hotel before they board the coach for the stadium. Afterwards, the messaging will be left to his senior players, with captain Harry Kane set to deliver the pre-match speech in the dressing room.

For such a huge national occasion, tonight’s match has retained the feel of a stepping stone towards a bigger, overarching goal, testament to the way he and his squad have raised expectations.

“They’re just looking forward to a hugely exciting opportunity,” Southgate said. “They understand that to play in tournaments is what international football ultimately is all about.

“They know that this is a great chance to be the first team to get to a final. But they’re excited by it, I don’t think they’re inhibited by it.”

Regardless, Southgate knows as well as anyone in the country that semi-finals have so often been England’s downfall and tonight is a chance for them to prove they have learned from the defeat to Croatia in Moscow three years ago.

There has already been evidence of their growth during the Euros, and interesting example of their development comes in Southgate’s considered tinkering of his XI.

The last time the manager named the same team for consecutive matches was between the quarter-final and semi-final of the World Cup in 2018 — a full 35 matches of twists, including for every game at this tournament.

He is considering another change tonight, with Bukayo Saka in contention to return for Jadon Sancho after missing the win in Rome with a knock. Saka’s emergence has further underlined England’s strength in depth in attacking areas and points to one of Southgate’s less-heralded achievements since Russia: effectively ending the fevered discussion over the national team’s so-called ‘best team’.

Will Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka come back into the side tonight? (The FA via Getty Images)
Will Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka come back into the side tonight? (The FA via Getty Images)

Eighteen months ago, before the pandemic delayed the Euros by a year, there was genuine debate over whether England’s front-three was the deadliest in international football and the only real question for Southgate was whether Sancho or Marcus Rashford partnered Raheem Sterling and Kane.

The perception is now so different, with the emergence of Saka, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden leaving the boss spoiled for choice. England may still have the best attack in the world, but which attack depends on the opposition and the occasion.

“We have always been prepared to give people opportunities, which has increased the depth of the squad,” Southgate said. “It has allowed us, when people have not quite been fully fit, [to be] able to look at players who have been particularly bright in training to make those adjustments and have total faith in the whole squad.

“Maybe in the past we were so heavily reliant on one player, and that heaped huge pressure on them, but now the collective is strong.”

Southgate will have considered Denmark’s system, strengths and weaknesses before deciding his team and he must have been tempted to revert to a back-three to match Kasper Hjulmand, as he did in the last-16 win over Germany.

Southgate knows his challenge is made more complicated by opponents who are nothing if not adaptable. Like England, the Danes have already used a back-three and a four at the finals, surprising Wales by ditching their wing-backs for their thumping 4-0 win in the last-16.

“I know we will face a team who are tactically adaptable,” Southgate said. “They change during games and they have done that very well. But we are also adaptable, we can build in different ways, we can defend in different ways and we have got intelligent players who are recognising those things during matches and making the adjustments, as well as checking things with us. It is going to be a high-level game.”

Proving they have learned from Russia goes way beyond Southgate’s selections, of course, and another seamless victory tonight would be remarkable and prove that England are a different beast. For the players, though, victory would just be another barrier broken as part of a bigger journey, and it is easy to imagine that Kane’s address will be little more than a reminder that England have achieved nothing yet.

“There wasn’t that much celebrating after Ukraine, it was ‘okay, onto Wembley now’,” Kane said. “You don’t get the chance to take in the history you’re knocking off, winning knockout games and getting to two semi-finals in a row at major tournaments.

“It’s the stuff you look at after. It’s now looking forward to a tough game and, hopefully, we can keep on knocking down barriers which have been there in the past.

“As a team we are more experienced in high pressure games, not just internationals but also at club level we have had a lot of players playing Champions League Finals, Premier League title runs, Cup finals.

“So I feel like the team understands these situations better — semi-finals and finals. Of course, we can always learn from 2018, but it is down to us to show that.”

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