Redemption for Gareth Southgate as England manager learns from lessons from 2018 World Cup heartbreak

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 (UEFA via Getty Images)
(UEFA via Getty Images)

Gareth Southgate has earned his semi-final redemption. Not from Euro ‘96, but from Russia 2018.

For all the misty-eyed nostalgia that has provided the context to these finals, it is the World Cup of three years ago that is of greatest relevance now, not a Brit pop-fuelled summer from a previous century.

Southgate, the England manager, is no longer judged on his ability to hold his nerve from the penalty spot.

Last night, he would be judged on his ability to manage the nerves of 11 players on the pitch, 12 more on the bench, on an emotional, pulsating and exhausting evening in front of 60,000 fans at Wembley and millions more around the world.

Whereas in Russia hehesitated in the face of immortality, here he seized the moment.

Regardless of Harry Kane’s extra time winner, Southgate proved he had learned the harsh lessons of the past. As an utterly engrossing semi-final crept towards extra time and all the implications that brings — last-gasp heartache, the agony of a penalty shootout — this felt different.

England were not hanging on, desperately trying to suck air into their lungs or keep their shape and crawl over the line. Instead, they were determined to get the job done. They do not get paid for overtime in this job, so when the board went up to signal six minutes of injury time at the end of normal time, they were the ones powering on.

Declan Rice, whose second-half performance symbolised how England grew into the game, was snapping into tackles higher and higher up the pitch.

Full-backs Luke Shaw and Kyle Walker were effectively playing as wingers.Raheem Sterling somehow found the energy to go on one mazy dribble after

Luke Shaw in action (AP)
Luke Shaw in action (AP)

another — each one a body blow to the Danes, just softening them up for the knockout that would come. And substitute Jack Grealish, who managed to turn up the volume at an already deafening Wembley, scrambled Danish minds with his dizzying feet.

This was not the cautious Southgate of 2018, when he stood benignly as Croatia took control of the World Cup semi-final, when the manager appeared to be caught ball-watching as much as his players in the face of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic’s passing carousel. On this occasion, Southgate was determined to effect change.

If England were fortunate to be level at the break, after Simon Kjaer’s own goal had cancelled out Mikkel Damsgaard’s stunning free-kick, the manner in which the game swung in the second half was down to design. Rice and Kalvin Phillips, who had been so harassed by the press of Denmark in the first 45 minutes, were instructed to wrestle control of midfield by winning the ball further up the pitch.

Whereas England retreated against Croatia in Russia, here they advanced. It was tactical tweak that allowed Mason Mount to link more of the play and Sterling and Bukayo Saka to get the ball at their feet, rather than chasing the long clearances England had been forced into before the break.

Gareth Southgate speaks with  Jack Grealish before being substituted (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Gareth Southgate speaks with Jack Grealish before being substituted (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Whereas England were sapped of energy by the time they reached the semis three years ago, here they grew stronger, as Southgate’s rotation policy throughout these finals paid dividends.

He was so confident of the stamina of his side that he made just one substitution over 90 minutes, compared to five from the flagging Danes, including a triple change midway through the second half.

In-game management does not always have to be about sending for the cavalry, but when the substitution from England came, it sent out the perfect message.

Grealish may not have come up with the winner, but his introduction was a statement of intent to England, to Denmark, to Wembley, that the night was there for the taking.

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