Some smart alecks in the lefty part of the English press have been issuing a dire warning. It’s a warning about averting your eyes during an impending event: The sight of Prime Minister Boris Johnson wearing an England shirt and bellowing, “Come on England!”
It could happen. It’s a fact that Johnson loves to wear costumes that make him looking like an ordinary working chap. It’s also a fact that this is the best England team in a generation, one that that’s massively improved from previous editions, mainly because of its embrace of European sophistication in tactics, preparation and positioning. At last, an England team to truly admire.
England’s new level of urbanity and guile was evident during the World Cup in 2018. It made it to the semi-final and lost to Croatia. Making it that far was impressive, but the loss brought old problems to mind – England scored early and then played a stultifying defensive game, giving possession and momentum to Croatia.
It brought to mind England’s disastrous loss to Italy at the World Cup in 2014. There was some possession and plenty of enthusiasm in England’s game, but the team was thoroughly outclassed by Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, who controlled everything, prowling the centre circle, cutting England to pieces with a cunning pass, left or right, in an intricate 4-1-4-1 formation. In 2018, that role was played by Croatia’s Luka Modric.
Now it’s different. Reliance on raw talent and tenacity is gone. So far at Euro 2020, England has defended high, kept possession and mastered set pieces. It has a huge advantage in the air, with four of their past five goals coming from headers. This isn’t the old trope of lobbing high balls into the penalty area, aiming for a tall striker. You can tell the positioning of Harry Maguire and Harry Kane has been rehearsed over and over.
Raheem Sterling’s sophistication has been a revelation. His speed is dazzling, but it’s his positioning on and off the ball that matters. In a way that an England player has never acted, he moves out of position to draw defenders like a magnet, a self-denying act that allows others to find space behind the opposing team’s full-backs. And here’s an interesting stat – England’s passing accuracy is now at 87 per cent. That’s a top European-level figure. Gone are the days of hoofing the ball forward to Wayne Rooney, and hoping.
Manager Gareth Southgate has thought out tactics and formation for each game very specifically. This used to be Germany’s secret weapon; deep concentration and study of the opposing team, and being ready. Against Germany, Southgate fielded what looked like a cautious team, using a 3-4-3 formation that was, in fact, fluid enough to become five at the back, and ideal for nullifying Germany’s best attackers, Robin Gosens and Serge Gnabry.
Southgate has also rotated players with an aplomb and confidence that suggests he has tuned out the media, pundits and the fans. Jack Grealish has also been used as a substitute to devastating effect, shifting the dynamic of matches with an ease that suggests the entire team is prepped for a shift in positioning, well in advance. Southgate has also arranged cameo appearances by Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka to unsettle opposing teams, and his confidence in using every tool available tells you he’s put that English trait of stiff reliance on a core team in the dustbin of history.
What’s admirable too is the way this great England team reflects the country as a community, and is not merely the uneasy coming together of a bunch of top players from top clubs. This team looks like a collective whereas previous England teams have appeared spoiled; a gang of selfish brats. Marcus Rashford and Sterling are noted social activists off the field. Sterling’s been vocal on racial injustice and fierce in his criticism of the English club game for rarely appointing Black managers. Rashford is only 23 but was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) last year for his indefatigable work to end child food poverty.
As an Irish Times editorial pointed out recently, this England team represents the England that Irish people love, admire and respect. And that’s not merely because three of the players – Declan Rice, Grealish and Harry Kane – are part of the Irish diaspora. (Kane’s father is from Galway and both Rice and Grealish played for the Republic of Ireland at junior levels.) It’s because the team embodies an openness, an inclusivity and progressive attitude that amounts to, well, European panache.
England was flattered by that 4-0 victory over an exhausted and overawed Ukraine, and hasn’t faced a team with the unearthly ambition that Denmark now has. But you could see Johnson shouting “Come on England!” and England winning this tournament easily, the team being highly aware that to get there it was necessary to abandon English traits and embrace Europe.