England booked their place at Euro 2024 with Tuesday night’s 3-1 win over Italy at Wembley, a game in which they were down 1-0 before two Harry Kane goals and one from Marcus Rashford lifted the Three Lions to all three points. Gab Marcotti has a few things to point out from the heavyweight clash.
1. Experience matters
England manager Gareth Southgate reaffirmed this in his prematch conference, when he talked about how formative England’s experiences were in the past three major tournaments, reaching the semifinals of Russia 2018, the final of Euro 2020 and the quarterfinal of Qatar 2022. He also noted that many times, you learn as much — if not more — from the defeats.
Seven of Tuesday’s starting XI (plus Jordan Henderson, who came off the bench) were in that 2018 World Cup squad. Nine of the XI have at least 45 caps, as does Henderson. Ten of the XI are playing Champions League football this year (well, assuming Maguire gets picked by Erik ten Hag).
Contrast this with Italy. They missed out entirely on the experience of the past two World Cups. In fact, just five players — Francesco Acerbi, Stephan El Shaarawy, Bryan Cristante, Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Gianluigi Donnarumma — had even been capped as far back as early 2018. Of those, only the latter three have been regulars with the national side over the past few seasons. Just two of the starting XI (Donnarumma and Nicolo’ Barella) have more than 45 caps, and only four of the XI are playing for Champions League teams this season.
You’re loath to ascribe intangibles like experience to what actually happens on the pitch, but those who remember the England of old could imagine them flipping out when going a goal down and conceding multiple chances in the first half at home. This one didn’t.
Equally, you wonder if a more experience, battle-hardened Italy might have been a little more clinical with the chances they did create.
2. Chemistry matters
Southgate gets a ton of stick for continuing to call up Harry Maguire and Kalvin Phillips, both of whom started on Tuesday night. This is mainly on the basis that neither play very often for their clubs — Maguire has started nine league games in the past 15 months, Phillips just two — and when they do play, mostly in cup competitions, they’re not particularly good.
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Part of this may be down to Southgate not being thrilled with the alternatives — rightly or wrongly, the latter in my opinion — but a lot of it you suspect is down to a genuine sense of valuing what they do within the system on the pitch and the dressing room off it.
Phillips only made his debut in September 2020, yet somehow has 30 caps. They are entirely familiar with Southgate’s not-so-adventurous style of play and they work well within that system. Integrating a newcomer — especially one who plays a different way at club level — isn’t straight-forward: he has to be a genuine valued-added to make it worthwhile because you’d lose that chemistry.
That’s exactly the sort of chemistry Italy don’t have. Partly because most haven’t played very much for the national side, partly because manager Luciano Spalletti has only been in charge for six weeks or so.
3. Individuals matter
It’s not just the fact that England have, objectively, better players than the ones Italy put out. It’s that, in key moments, the better players won their individual battles, probably because they’re better players.
Whether it’s Harry Kane barreling through the middle on the third goal, Marcus Rashford cutting in from the flank, Declan Rice dominating the middle of the park or, of course, Jude Bellingham rampaging down the middle to set up one goal and win a penalty, the superior quality shone through. Tactics can only mask so much and, especially in open spaces, football is a series of individual battles that England’s better players usually won.
On the flip side, Italy defended very poorly, especially through the middle. Giorgio Scalvini and Alessandro Bastoni (who came on for Acerbi) are very gifted defenders who failed to perform on the night.
4. Context matters
Managers always say they go out to win and play well and blah-blah-blah, but players can read league tables too. This was a game that largely mattered little, which means the pressure was dialled down for both sides.
Had England lost, they still would have topped the group and been near-certain to qualify, given their last two games are North Macedonia away and Malta at home. Italy would still have needed to avoid defeat away to Ukraine on Nov. 20. (The only real benefit? Not needing to beat North Macedonia on Nov. 17). A draw would have made no difference to Italy’s outlook either.
Logic suggests you should be able to play better when the pressure is off, because you can just focus on results. Maybe it works that way sometimes, but in reality, many teams play on adrenaline. Knowing the game only matters so much is going to have a dampening effect.
5. All that said, this is the right path forward … for both teams
We can debate endlessly about whether Southgate is too cautious, but in terms of results in major tournaments, this is as good as England have been in half a century. And he has cultivated an image for the team that has swerved many of the psychodramas of past England sides, even making them likable to the sort of fan who always put his club first.
It’s not particularly sophisticated or modern — most top clubs play an entirely different brand of football — and you wonder what happens when variability conspires against him: even on Tuesday, there’s a parallel universe when Jordan Pickford doesn’t make that save, where Phillips gets sent off for a second yellow, where Italy’s defenders don’t go all Keystone Kops. But it works for him, and it works for England too.
As for Spalletti, one thing he shares with his predecessor, Roberto Mancini, is the belief that you have to play modern football. That means pressing, possession and committing men forward. It’s what has delivered silverware to most of the world’s top clubs, from Manchester City to Bayern to Liverpool. It may go against the Azzurri stereotype, but that mold was shattered years ago by Mancini.
The problem is, you need the players to do it and as he himself noted, you expose yourselves to risks on the counterattack, the sort that England exploited at Wembley. The latter, you hope, is something that can be fixed in time, though it will never go away.
In terms of having the right players, he can point to the guys who were unavailable to him on the night (Mattia Zaccagni, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Federico Chiesa through injury, Nicolo Zaniolo and Sandro Tonali because they were being investigated for illegal betting) and to a gifted generation of younger players coming through. Italy won the Under-19 Euros and reached the final of the Under-20 World Cup; this will get better.