Up until their quarter-final clash with Ukraine, England’s Euro 2020 record was near flawless. Three wins out of four. Zero goals conceded. On Saturday in Rome, Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire led the way to ensure it remained that way.
On paper, surprise package Ukraine posed an interesting threat to Gareth Southgate’s side. Compact defensively and inventive on the counter, it was an intriguing match-up. But only on paper. 90 minutes at the Stadio Olympico showed the English side exude a different type of confidence. They were in cruise control as they put four past the hapless Ukrainians.
A brace from captain Harry Kane will have stolen all the mainstream headlines. Goals sell. But in truth, it is everything else about Southgate’s team that is just so impressive. They have the intangibles of a championship team. The chemistry between a group largely made up of Premier League rivals is like we have never seen before.
Defensively, England look like they might never concede. And that has been strengthened significantly during the process by the return of Harry Maguire.
With the obscene amount of talent at his disposal, Southgate really just needed to crack an impermeable defensive formula to put his side in the best position to win. Having seemingly done that this summer, England look destined for a grand finale appearance at Wembley.
How the game was going to look was quite easy to predict. Man for man, Ukraine’s talent level cannot compete with England. Their best hope was to contain and try to pounce on the counter. Sure enough, that was Andriy Shevchenko’s game plan. It had successfully taken them this far. Why couldn’t it do it again?
England certainly got the memo, though. The Three Lions got on the front foot from the off, as expected. Bossing possession and winning their duels, they too got an early goal to boot — the worst thing that can happen to a side trying to remain as compact as possible.
There was a hint of fortune about England’s opener. But you need luck to be on your side if you’re going to win major honors. And with that, the outstanding Raheem Sterling beat a couple of men out wide before cutting inside and finding Kane with a glorious low ball in behind. To the eye, it looked like Kane was not really expecting that. But goal poachers of the England captains caliber adapt on the fly.
As soon as the Tottenham forward spotted that the defender in front of him was slightly off-balance, he pounced. Kane broke the offside trap and latched onto the inviting ball, lifting it beautifully and just enough to beat the onrushing Ukrainian goalkeeper. Four minutes in, England drew blood. And though the hunter’s killer instincts to finish off its prey didn’t kick in until after the break, it was smooth sailing from then on.
The Luke ‘Show’
The second half belonged to Manchester United’s Luke Shaw, who is continuing his marvelous resurgence at Euro 2020. After being omitted in the tournament opener against Croatia, the left-back hasn’t looked back. He has played every game since and been absolutely instrumental.
Similar to his role at United, Shaw sees a lot of the ball for England and is required to contribute in the creation department inside the left channel. That suits the 25-year-old to a tee. 60 seconds into the second frame, the latest improvements to his game were once again on show.
One of the designated set-piece takers for club and country, Shaw whipped in a delicious ball from a free kick on the left-hand side that found the head of United teammate and captain, Harry Maguire. Maguire buried an almost net-piercing bullet header. But that goal was all about the delivery. It was an absolutely stunning left-footed set-piece. Shaw made that chance harder to miss than score. And that wasn’t the end.
Four minutes later, Shaw was marauding down the left flank once again. This time, Sterling spotted the left-back joining in on the overlap and played him in with a lovely flick. Without thinking about it twice, Shaw clipped an inch-perfect ball into the area, finding Kane right in front of goal, unmarked. The England captain did the rest. Five minutes of Shaw magic and England were home and hosed, up 3-0.
Three minutes after the hour mark, the Three Lions added the cherry on top of a fantastic performance through Jordan Henderson’s first international goal. The Liverpool skipper was found on the near post by a Mason Mount corner to head home.
The scenes that followed were euphoric. The celebratory huddle encapsulated the tight-knit bond of this group. And it was only fitting that “Football’s coming home” was being bellowed in the stands by however many English fans that were able to make it into the ground despite the strict Covid regulations.
It might be coming home this time
Something special is certainly brewing in the English camp. It doesn’t matter who you play against, winning four games out of five without conceding a goal at a major tournament is remarkable. And after coming up just short of a World Cup final three years ago, England look determined to right their wrongs. That was the ultimate character building experience. A learning curve.
After a setback, it’s all about how you respond. And England took to this tournament like a duck to water. The scores maybe didn’t reflect it, but they breezed through the group stages. Then, tricky Germany were comfortably put to the sword. Now, the 4-0 against Ukraine showed that Southgate’s side is hitting form at the perfect time — with the semi-final looming.
Returning to Wembley, England will face Denmark — the true dark horses of the competition. And inspired by the Christian Eriksen story, the Danes will pose another fascinating test. They don’t mind defending, just like Ukraine. But they also love attacking. And if England are to make it through and perhaps go all the way, this will be another valuable experience — on both sides of the ball. And on the other side, Italy or Spain will await.