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EURO 2020 Final: More than just another loss at Wembley

Time has been called on the Euro 2020 with a final matchup between Italy and England serving a passionate and eager nation yet another disappointment with the coveted trophy heading to Rome.

Ball Gecko editors who have followed the competition, and brought you play-by-play updates will once more detail the Final and amidst the grief, pride, and smugness in the air, chaperone you through history, time, and moments that defined a night where England came closest to winning a major international trophy in the last 55 years.

Tobi Ogunsakin: “The game nobody wanted to lose”

Football is coming home! Oh, scratch that. Football didn’t come home, it went to Rome. Indeed, it could have come home, at least, over 66,000 England fans at the Wembley stadium with bare chests, plenty of beer splurging, singing, and shouting had begun to dream after Luke Shaw volleyed home that cross from Kieran Trippier in the second minute. Yet, it didn’t. Somehow, the Three Lions would think that they could have defended the lead for 88 minutes. Gareth Southgate had played with three center-backs – a strategy he used in the second-round defeat of Germany. In fairness, it worked for most of the first half. Because, how do you explain how high Luke Shaw, the left wing-back was for the goal?

Roberto Mancini was never going to go down without a fight. He rang his changes in the second half. He took out the rather ineffective Ciro Immobile, who had been marked out by the pair of Harry Maguire and John Stones. Now, there was more fluidity in the attacking play of the Azzurri. Federico Chiesa would move to the left, Insigne through the middle, and Domenico Berardi on the right. The English defenders had something different coming. They had also begun to lose the midfield. Jorginho would now start to find the spaces, with Emerson becoming more influential flying down the wings. The increased pressure on the English backline forced Maguire to concede a corner. The resulting corner found its way to the head of one of the shortest players on the pitch, Marco Verratti. Jordan Pickford tipped it to the bar and Leonardo Bonucci scored the easiest and one of the most important goals of his career from the rebound. 

It was an easy goal but the celebration was intense. He would leap over the fence, just in front of the over 1000 Italian fans at the stadium with his hands wide open. From then on, Italy retreated, England remained cautious. No one wanted to lose. Extra time was imminent. ‘Penalties’ was the decider. It was left for the team with the strongest nerves. As it showed on the night, the Italians had the strongest nerves, Gianluigi Donarrumma’s steeled nerves and steady hands would prise victory away to Rome.

Ayoola Kelechi Awosika: “A typical Final of tiny margins and unusual decisions”

It’s easy to forget because of how the game went, that for a not so brief period, it really was coming home. The unusual (for the Euros) 3-4-3 system worked wonders when The Three Lions were on the front foot, they had Italy so rattled and out of shape that Jorginho a central midfielder was making tackles at left-back, Insigne a savvy shooter (as seen against Belgium) almost maimed a poor bird sitting atop the Wembley terraces, and Verratti usually more assured in possession passed into the advertisement board. 

Maybe it was the booing of the Italian national anthem, the usual power source for the Azzurri, at the start of the game which had the players dazed or the way the England players pressed relentlessly, but Italy were on the ropes, and with an early goal, it was obvious that England needed to strike the knockout punch. 

Instead, after 25 minutes, England stopped playing almost entirely, allowing Italy to find their feet in the noise of Wembley. In the last 20 minutes of the first half, England only managed 26.7% possession compared to 46.8% in the opening 25 minutes. In total, they had 34.6% possession, by far the lowest they managed in the entire tournament as they dug their heels in trying to see out the 1-0 win without any real exit strategy from deep in their own box. Something they had not done so far at the Euros. 

The just reward for this course of action was Italy’s equaliser and their almost total domination of the rest of the game. It was a miracle that England even saw the penalty shootout. Italy, once they had equalised, were in full control, piling on pressure trying to find a winner in normal and extra time and England had Jordan Pickford who played perhaps the best game of his career to thank for reaching the shootout. All this from a position of relative English superiority. Much of the discussion will center around destiny, patterns, three missed penalties for The Three Lions again, and unfortunately racism, but it has to be said that one way or the other, it should not have come to a margin as tight as the left foot of a teenager in his first international tournament.

Atinuke Esan: “Death by an early goal”

England were playing their first major international tournament final in fifty-five years. They took on the Italians in the final of the European Championships. They started the match on the front foot by taking the lead after two minutes through Luke Shaw after a wonderful cross by Kieran Trippier and it set the stage for an entertaining final as The Azzurri searched for an equaliser seeking to regain control of the match.

England had it all to do in order to hold on to their lead while they also searched for a second goal but did more defending than required and the Italians got their deserved goal in the second half through Leonardo Bonucci.

England’s early goal would alter how both teams approached the game. Despite going down,  Italy looked like the team that wanted to win and went after the game while England looked content to take the match to extra time and penalties.

If the early goal was not scored, the match could have produced a lot more spark on both sides and the urgency of time could have loosened the hold of caution on both sides. A 2nd-minute goal in a European final meant Italy had to come back into the game and after they did it became a rapid game of fouls and misplaced passes, tackles, and cards. England went into game-management mode too early in the final and in the end, it was clear they lacked the mettle to see out a match of this magnitude.

Gareth Southgate: Failing the trust exercise. 

Trust is a funny old thing. When you show trust and it works out, it’s absolutely beautiful and can sometimes be seen as an inspiration of genius but when it doesn’t work out, it’s only an exercise in foolishness. For Gareth Southgate, this was the difference between trusting a 19-year-old Bukayo Saka for most of the knockout stages ahead of more experienced and more likely candidates which yielded immense positive results as Saka established himself as one of England’s better players in the games he was selected to play and trusting the same player, who had never taken a penalty in his senior career with the final spot-kick in the Euro 2020 final while the team was already behind. 

In all of his struggles with trust, Southgate’s biggest crime was his lack of trust in his own players, system, and style that had seen them get this far. Starting with the 3-4-3 system had shown dividends early on, but the decision to retreat so far into their shell that striker Harry Kane who had already plundered four goals at the Euros did not have a touch in the Italian penalty area until his converted penalty in the shootout, was an evident mistake and was unlike the England that had gotten this far.

It showed that for all their exploits at the Euros, there was still some doubt in Southgate’s mind about how good his team was and he did not trust them to keep Italy out any other way than defending so deep, that the last line of defense was almost literally in front of the goalkeeper. Before the extra time, before the penalties, before the choice of penalty takers, this was the mistake that stopped football from coming home. If Southgate stays as England’s manager, he must shake the impostor syndrome that cost him England’s first trophy since 1966 and trust in the talent he has. 

Mancini: Time tested Winner and the Italian rebuild.

It was in November 2017. Italy were at their lowest ebb. The World Cup was to be played in Russia but the Azzurri would play no part in it. It was unbelievable in all of the country’s circles, a disgraceful outcome for a proud footballing nation. Sweden qualified at their expense. It was clear that a lot had to change. Many players had to move on- most in their thirties. The coach, Gian Piero Ventura had to be let go. He was rather reluctant.

In 2018, Roberto Mancini was employed. The Italian manager had won the Premier League and the Serie A title while coaching at Manchester City and Inter Milan respectively. Yet, this job was different. He was going to start a rebuilding process- but from scratch. Not just that, he wanted to play differently. From the gritty and solid style of play that had the defense as its foundation to a more enterprising and eye-catching style of football. It was new and it was refreshing.

Fast forward to 2021 and Italy are the European Champions, worthy champions you might add. Mancini had transformed the side to a very expressive team playing with as much freedom. The players were younger too- well, not the defense- he needed the experience. Everyone had started to notice after the 2006 World champions took out all comers in the qualifiers, scoring 37 goals and conceding four. They reached the UEFA Nations League final too. The qualification was easy and so was the group stage of the Euro. Three wins out of three. They only faced their truest tests in the knockouts. Even then, they remained unbeaten. Just the 34-match unbeaten streak and Chiellini was seen lifting the title alongside other teammates.

You know the interesting part? In helping Italy back to the “top of world football”, as promised, Mancini had also helped himself. He was a decent forward in his time but he never truly achieved international success. He didn’t get to play at the World Cup in 1990  and retired from the national team in 1994 because of a row with the coach, Arrigo Sacchi. Yet, 31 years later, the smooth 56-year-old has an international medal- not as a player but as a coach.

Saka, Sancho & Rashford: The question of the when and not how to step up into responsibility.

When Bukayo Saka stepped up to the line to take the 5th penalty for England, Italy were already ahead in the tie and he had the weight of expectation of millions of fans waiting to see him score in order to take the shootout to sudden death but the teenage Arsenal forward missed the penalty and Italy were crowned champion. Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho also missed their spot-kicks, which was surprising because both players were brought on close to the end of extra time, which meant they were brought on to play penalties.

Rashford, Saka, and Sancho have been criticized and with overwhelming racist abuse directed at them for costing their team a first major international trophy in fifty-five years, while Gareth Southgate was criticized for handling the huge responsibility to Saka despite his age and the fact that he has never played a penalty in an official match. However, with penalties, it is about who steps up and is ready to take the kick and not about age and when or which penalty a player should play it is about responsibility, and if Bukayo Saka had scored, the manager’s mentality will have been praised for trusting the young boy and his gamble would have been seen to have paid off but at that time they had no time to experience at that moment.

A job for Mavericks: Spinazzola, Bonucci, Chiellini, Immobile & Insigne.

When Spinazzola disembarked the jet at Luton airport ahead of the Final, limping and aided by crutches, you could tell that something was in the air. It was confidence, impassioned defiance that came from a player ready to give his soul for his nation. He wanted to win. He really wanted it so bad, and he got it in the end.
To be fair, this was an emotion shared by many within the Mancini-led side. Spinazzola found many hardened footballers who had built a steely resolve towards getting the job done without losing faith or flair in the Italian team. When they thumped 3 goals past the Switzerland team, the spectacle was not in the goals from the Italians but in the passion with which they celebrated. This was a team with a soul, a soul that understood the importance of victory. 

For Chiellini and Bonucci they had to shut down the nightmares of Italy missing out on the World Cup by keeping the goals out. At 36 and 34 years old respectively, this pair didn’t get dribbled past once in Italy’s run to the title. Matchless in energy and efficiency, at different stages of their journey in the tournament they both had the zeal to power their way towards the goal. It was a fully committed end-to-end performance from start to finish.

Against Belgium, Insigne’s sensational goal wasn’t a brilliant spark of the moment. To be clear, it was a perfectly choreographed, well-rehearsed beauty. He got it on the second try, but it was the audacity to make the exact same attempt, after the same type of run in a game of this magnitude that underpins the brilliance of the effort. Audacity. The guts to go for it, a maverick move.

The real genius in this Italian team is the simple idea that a bunch of mavericks, at full prime, all over 30 years and without any tangible assurance of a second shot at this trophy in the colours of their nation banded together to do an impossible job. An Italian job that evoked scenes of dazzling dare-devilry, passion, and the guts to steal immortality from a fledgling team right under the noses of the entire nation. It’s a run that may not happen again, but one that stays with this set of  Azzurri forever.

SIMILAR: Will England Defeat Its Penalty Curse?

READ ALSO: 5 Best Penalty Shootouts at the Euros

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