Wednesday's big stories
England are exactly what they need to be: pragmatic.
England beat Germany 2-0 on Tuesday night to make the quarter-final stage of the Euros courtesy of a clinical and pragmatic performance. If anything brings football home, then it will be pragmatism.
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The result saw euphoria sweep Wembley. It felt a cultural experience, and, as Paul Hayward notes here, vindication for Gareth Southgate, who continues to do an incredible job as England manager.
However, The euphoria of victory can blur the reality of performance. Thus the reception given to broadly similar performances can be wildly different. England's performance level across Euro 2020 has been fairly consistent. Yet, matches against Croatia, Scotland, the Czech Republic and Germany have been perceived in extremes. That is because ultimately sport is about emotion. Strip that emotion back and it loses its allure.
Yet, sometimes it is important to remove emotion from the equation to analyse performance. England have performed solidly across their four games at the Euros. There have been variances across performance but nothing huge.
England fans roam through central London celebrating Germany win
They are pragmatic. Pragmatism wins tournaments. France were pragmatic - and actually quite conservative - in 2018, Portugal the same in 2016 and Germany too in 2014. Goals scored, by the way, are not the best measure of whether a team are conservative in nature; France, for example, put four past Croatia in the World Cup final but did start with Blaise Matuidi as one of their attacking midfield three.
Gareth Southgate has built a resolute and rugged team. A side that are built - first and foremost - not to concede. It can - when results do not fall a favourable way, see Scotland - be jarring. However, it is effective. Tournament football is about winning and the England manager has built a side capable of winning. That ability is built on pragmatism, garnished by players of excellent technical talent, like Jack Grealish.
The Germany match was an important win but England are yet to deliver a defining, scintillating performance that sets them out as the team to beat. It may come, but it may not.
However, this England will perhaps not be defined by a singular performance but by its adaptability - and, as Southgate said post-match, the willingness of the players to sacrifice themselves.
“With forward players, we've got so many attacking options. It's hard to give them all the love they need,” the England manager said. "They're accepting and understanding of needing to be patient, needing to wait for their moments right across the board with Marcus, with Jadon, with Dominic, with Jack. They've really understood and sacrificed themselves for the group. It's only by doing that you get to the stages we are. Everyone has got to be ready and that's going to be more and more important as we get to the latter stages of the tournament.”
Southgate has tinkered with personnel and formation, and England have played four, scored four and conceded none. The cold hard facts read impressively. And that, ultimately, is all that matters.
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Harry Maguire is an excellent football player
Harry Maguire is an excellent football player. His absence from the England team at the start of the tournament has only served to reinforce that fact.
The Three Lions looked a far less secure operation without the Manchester United defender stationed alongside John Stones. The reason for this is two-fold. The first is obvious – he is an excellent, dominant defender. The second less so. His ball progression is excellent. His passing is both crisp and accurate, and while his stride is ungainly, it is hugely effective.
Maguire’s presence allows England to operate a further 10 or so yards up the pitch, and the effect on the Three Lions is transformative. Passes that are previously passive have a menace to them 10 or so yards further up the pitch, and Maguire’s ability to turn defence into attack adds another dimension to England.
Harry Kane continues to struggle
Harry Kane scored against Germany, but did not play particularly well. He had nine touches in the first half, with six of those coming in the last five minutes of that period. He put on a further 20 to that total in the second half. 29 touches.
That's less then every other player who started the game, including Bukayo Saka, who was withdrawn with just over 20 minutes remaining. For comparison, Kane averaged 40.8 touches per 90 over the course of the season.
The way England set up against Germany should have suited the Tottenham player perfectly. In may ways it mirrored the system he operated in at Spurs last season to such good effect. Yet, he struggled. Again. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, physically, he looks shot. Perhaps, this is a function of him returning from injury for the League Cup final too soon, or maybe his toils for Spurs have caught up with him.
Secondly, compounding the above is a lack of service. England did not get good or quick ball to Kane for much of the match against Germany. That changed with the introduction of Jack Grealish. The Aston Villa man, of course, laid on Kane’s goal late on but it was also fairly telling that Kane was lurking behind Raheem Sterling for England’s first goals too. The Three Lions got behind Germany twice in wide areas, and both times Kane was there ready to dispatch.
Much has been written regarding Kane’s struggles but perhaps the solution is as simple as getting the ball to him.
Rory Smith in the New York Times breaks down the actual meaning of England against Germany, and thus the importance of the result.
England does not see Germany as a peer or as a rival so much as it sees it as an inverted reflection of itself. It has come to stand for everything that England, for some reason, could not be. Germany is what England could have won, could have been. Germany is where the ghosts rise.
On this day in 2002, Brazil beat Germany 2-0 in the World Cup final. Ronaldo got a brace. Here are all of his World Cup goals:
Absolutely no football. Madness.
However, there is plenty of other sporting action, including the Tour de France, with a 27.2km time trial to Laval, where the GC favourites will face their first big showdown.
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