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As their tepid but ultimately triumphant Euro 2020 group stage comes to a close, it is worth stopping for a moment and remembering how England got to this tournament. The world was a very different place in 2019 and the qualification campaign, contained between late March and mid-November, saw a very different England. Take a look at the “goals for” column, to start with.
The 37 goals that Gareth Southgate’s side scored during qualifying was second only to Belgium’s 40, but the No 1-ranked international side in the world were in a six-team group and therefore played two games more. England’s goals were not all crammed into a couple of thrashings, either. Break them down match-by-match and they were largely consistent: scoring five, five, four, five, one, six, seven and four.
Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling claimed 20 of those 37 between them but there were contributions from Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Ross Barkley. Barkley played quite a lot, actually, and given that he could often be found alongside one of Dele Alli or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, there were few if any complaints about Southgate starting with two holding midfielders.
Now, compare and contrast those scorelines from qualifying with the binary set of ones and zeros during this group stage. From 5-1, 4-0 and 5-3 to 1-0, 0-0, 1-0: something, clearly, has changed. The number of shots also tells a story. England’s total of 22 attempts on goal is the second-lowest of any team competing at Euro 2020 to have played three games. It is also just two more than they managed in 90 minutes when beating Bulgaria 6-0 in qualifying.
Obviously, the standard of opposition is going to be higher at the tournament itself than it is during qualification. We cannot go around comparing apples and oranges. This is not an entirely new phenomenon, though. There was noticeably not as much flair and panache about England’s play during the autumn’s Nations League engagements, which were mostly low-scoring affairs.
And even so, it is possible to make one direct comparison with qualifying. The first of those big wins came against the Czech Republic, who were beaten by five unanswered goals at Wembley then but only shipped the one on their return on Tuesday. The Czechs were also the only team in qualifying to stop Southgate’s side from scoring more than once and beat them 2-1 in Prague, administering England’s first qualifying defeat in a decade.
Did that result change Southgate’s thinking, bringing about a more cautious approach? The sight of Kosovo scoring three times at St Mary’s may also have led to something of a rethink. Those games were the best part of two years ago now, though, while the most fundamental difference between then and the present day is the pandemic, which compressed the football calendar and in doing so, changed the way the game is played for the time being.
As it happens, the two managers widely regarded as having adapted best to playing football during a pandemic are in charge of the English and European champions respectively and contested the Champions League final. Both Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel modified their methods this season, placing greater emphasis on control and playing with the handbrake on.
Southgate has a long way to go before emulating the success either, of course. England have displayed nothing like the same fluency in attack as Manchester City, or Chelsea at their best either. They are nowhere near achieving that fleeting equilibrium that Guardiola found between the turn of the year and the early spring, when City built an impregnable defence without compromising on their devastating attack.
England are showing signs of solidity, though, which is traditionally the foundation for success at international level, and now also appears to be the secret during these strange, unprecedented times too. The backline was supposedly this squad’s weakest point but as well as being able to boast three consecutive clean sheets, they have also given up very few good chances.
There is evidence that Southgate is taking a more considered perspective too, looking to the long-term rather than throwing everything after one result. After the Scotland draw, while his critics asked fair questions of his lack of substitutions and his in-game management, he stressed the importance of “managing the tournament”. A draw was a decent enough result, he argued.
“It was not a game where there was a huge amount of control,” he argued correctly. His priority was to seize what control he could and hold onto the point he had rather than chasing another two. “I understand we're at Wembley, it's a game against Scotland where everyone wants us to win, we wanted to win but it is in the context of the tournament and qualification is the first and most important thing.”
A desire for control can be seen in several areas of this England team. Southgate’s full-backs were more adventurous against the Czechs than in the first two games but are clearly under instruction not to leave their flanks exposed. The much-maligned Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips axis could offer more in terms of moving the ball up the pitch but together, they are adept at the sort of safe possession play that can kill games off and stop opponents who are chasing a result from rallying.
Altogether, it is a very different England from the one which scored the most goals-per-game of any team to reach this tournament. But then, once they had qualified, they did not play or even meet up as a squad for nearly a year due to the pandemic. Look at the results, compare the performances from late 2019 to those from the start of this season, and that long gap feels like a turning point which heralded the end of one team and the start of another.
This new England may not always be pretty, but it is perhaps better suited to the difficulties of the day, and could yet prove to be successful.