Gareth Southgate puts faith in England old guard as senior stars blow Ukraine away

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·5-min read
Gareth Southgate puts faith in England old guard as senior stars blow Ukraine away
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 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

It was a simple thing, but for Gareth Southgate it was significant.

Substitute Jude Bellingham was on his feet and preparing to come on when Jordan Henderson headed home England’s fourth goal against Ukraine, the first of his international career.

Bellingam, who was presented with an England shirt by Henderson ahead of his first start in last month’s warm-up game with Austria, reacted by skipping down the touchline punching the air, a huge beam spread across his face.

“I loved some of the reaction on the bench when Hendo scored, because you could see the younger players were totally delighted for him,” Southgate said. “There’s a lovely moment with Jude. That shows you what Hendo brings to our environment that the players were so pleased for him. We all were.”

For Southgate, the moment encapsulated the bond between England’s new generation and the established players, as well as further justifying his decision to include Henderson in the squad after so little football last season.

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“He’s really accepted that this was going to be a difficult and different challenge, but he’s totally thrown himself into it,” Southgate said of the Liverpool captain. “He was adamant he just wanted to be a part of it and wanted to contribute in any way he could. It’s brilliant for him he’s had a moment like that and he’s been crucial around the camp as to what we’re doing.”

Henderson breaking his duck on his 62nd England appearance was one of many touches that made Saturday’s 4-0 quarter-final win such a satisfying night’s work for Southgate’s side.

Significantly, the moment also capped a decisive evening for England’s old guard, all of whom have faced questions or criticism around the tournament.

For all the talk of England’s youthful talent at Euro 2020, the quarter-final was a victory inspired by Southgate’s veterans of Russia 2018. Henderson, Harry Kane, Harry Maguire, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Pickford were all imperious and there are no longer any nagging questions about them ahead of England’s first European Championship semi-final in 25 years against Denmark on Wednesday.

One of Southgate’s most impressive achievements to date has been in creating a fierce meritocracy and effectively ending debate over England’s ‘best XI’ with a considered horses-for-courses approach, based on the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses.

Yet, he has also remained loyal to a core of senior players, who have been bonded together by shared experiences. The most notable was their run to the semi-finals of the World Cup, but their ties were also strengthened by the racist abuse suffered by the squad in Montenegro and Bulgaria in 2019.

“Our first Under-21 game, the two full-backs were John Stones and Luke Shaw, Harry Kane was on the bench,” Southgate said. “Those relationships have been forming over a long, long period of time.

“We’ve had a lot of incidents over a long period of time. Bulgaria was another one where you go through things as a team. You can put scenarios in — we went to the army camp and we did stuff which definitely helped — but the reality is it is going through the games together, going through those real-life experiences together. There’s no short cut to that.”

The result of so much shared history is a group of senior players trusted implicitly by Southgate and who are in the process of repaying his faith at the Finals. “Within any team there’s a core group that drive the team and I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of that,” Southgate said.

While Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, perhaps the vibrant embodiments of the new England, remained on the bench, the old guard showed their value in Rome. Kane scored twice and won the set-pieces leading to England’s other two goals as his tournament came to life with a bang.

The England captain faced scrutiny for his subdued performances in the group stage and even calls from the likes of Jamie Carragher for Southgate to substitute him during the last-16 match against Germany, but his late goal at Wembley sparked lift-off.

Kane peaked in the group stage of the last World Cup but still went home with the Golden Boot, and if he is going to shine for only half a tournament, better for England that it is the second half. His first goal inside four minutes was made by Sterling, who is increasingly a contender for player of the tournament after another decisive display.

Sterling set England on their way to victory by bursting inside and dissecting Ukraine’s five-man defence with a clever ball, allowing Kane to do the rest. The winger was also instrumental in Kane’s second goal, with a cute flick to the brilliant Shaw.

Pickford came into the tournament on a back of a club season where he had briefly been dropped by Everton over a series of error-strew performances but kept another clean sheet to surpass Gordon Banks’s record of four consecutive blanks at the start of the 1966 World Cup. The goalkeeper can set a new European Championship record for clean sheets (six) with another against Denmark.

Maguire, meanwhile, continued to make a mockery of suggestions he should not have been included in the squad due to injury with another imperious display and England’s all-important second goal with a thumping header from Shaw’s free-kick.

Southgate had warned that the Manchester United centre-half and Henderson may ultimately be more effective off the pitch than on it, but Maguire has barely put a foot wrong so far.

 (Pool via REUTERS)
(Pool via REUTERS)

Saturday’s display was a powerful reminder that talent will only get you so far in major tournaments. As Southgate knows all too well, spirit, experience and togetherness are equally significant, particularly at this late stage.

“The lads that were with us in Russia have been through these experiences together that they pass on to the younger group, and the newer group take the lead from the tribal elders, so I think it is key,” Southgate explained.

“It’s not just about talent. Team building is about so much more than that. Relationships and strength of those bonds. That group is so important.”

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