The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

Southgate's penalty plan backfires in painful England final

Associated Press Monday, 12 July 2021, 08:09 Last update: about 3 months ago

It all ended in a familiar consoling embrace for Gareth Southgate. Wrapping his arms around Bukayo Saka, the England coach felt the teenager's anguish.

Having a decisive penalty saved in a European Championship match at Wembley Stadium can be such a lonely experience.

It still follows Southgate 25 years after his missed spot kick in the semifinals against Germany. Now he had to accept responsibility for Sunday’s final loss to Italy, having selected Saka to take what would be the last kick of Euro 2020 — a kick saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma.

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“He is not on his own,” Southgate said. “We’ve got to be there to support him. We’re got to be there to help him. But I’m sure he’ll get a lot of love from the outside.”

The focus will turn instead to Southgate’s decision-making. Should he have asked a 19-year-old to step up for such a pressure-packed moment?

Raheem Sterling, a Premier League winner playing at his fourth tournament, wasn’t even included among the five penalty takers before the shootout was over and Italy was going off to collect the trophy.

Southgate’s strategy will be analyzed for years to come in a nation still waiting for a first major title since the 1966 World Cup.

Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were brought in the 120th minute just in time to take penalties. Rashford had to play at right back with Kyle Walker sacrificed for the looming shootout. Liverpool’s Premier League and Champions League winner, Jordan Henderson, was deemed less suitable for a penalty than Sancho.

It was a big ask of Rashford and Sancho after spending most of the night sitting on the bench. They both missed penalties before Saka as England lost 3-2 in the shootout.

“It’s down to me,” Southgate said. “I decided on the penalty takers based on what we’ve done in training. Nobody is on their own. That’s my call and it totally rests on me.”

Alan Shearer, who scored England’s first penalty before Southgate’s miss at Euro '96, doubted his former teammate’s strategy on Sunday night.

“Mentally you have to get yourself right,” Shearer said on the BBC. “You’ve not kicked a ball for a few hours.”

No one was faulting the players who missed, but that didn’t stop the grimly familiar spate of racially abusive messages being sent to Sancho, Rashford and Saka on social media.

“Anyone behind such disgusting behavior is not welcome in following the team," the English Football Association said, backing tougher action when Black players are racially abused. The FA also had to condemn ticketless fans who surged through security into the stadium, a further blot on England's first men's final appearance in 55 years.

Southgate showed his backing for the players.

“They were the best takers we had left on the pitch,” he said. “We win and lose together.”

It was a defeat that came after gaining the perfect platform to surge to glory when Luke Shaw scored in the second minute. It looked like Southgate’s tactics were paying off by reverting to a back three for the final, with Shaw deployed as a left wing back. He was set up for the goal by Kieran Trippier's cross from the other flank.

But England also took the lead early in the 2018 World Cup semifinals against Croatia when Trippier was the scorer in the fifth minute.

Just like that 2-1 loss three years ago, England failed to build on a position of strength before finishing 1-1 after 120 minutes.

“At times we didn’t keep the ball well enough,” Southgate said. “That invited more pressure. It’s something we have to be better at.”

For a squad hyped up for its attacking threats, England became timid in the search for a second goal.

“To get all those attacking players on you have to do it late," Southgate said. “It was a gamble but if we gambled earlier we may have lost the game in extra time any way.”

Striker Harry Kane didn’t even have a shot on target until he scored his penalty.

“We should be extremely proud of what we have achieved," the captain said. “It will probably hurt for the rest of our careers.”

Especially perhaps hearing Italy fans adopting the England anthem, singing “football's coming home” as they paraded the trophy at their opponent's home.

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