After 55 years, Southgate proves to be the man to deliver English dreams

Talking Point

Sam WallaceTelegraph Media Group Limited

He was asked once whether he thought it really was the “impossible job” of folklore and Gareth Southgate, then just two games into the role of England manager, and not yet anything more than an interim appointment, replied by saying that nothing he had seen suggested that it was.

“I don’t think any job is impossible,” Southgate said then. “I think certain jobs are more complex than others, but no job is impossible, otherwise we would not have put a man on the moon.”

Certainly, there have been times in the life of the England team when it has felt like it might be simpler for the Football Association to put a man on the moon than successfully navigate an international tournament. But that untapped power has always been there around the England team, a national longing, that can either be a force for good or turned on itself and, most often, the manager.

At Wembley, it was there – unmistakable, unique – an overwhelming enthusiasm for the England team that Southgate has created. This England manager has always had a notion of what that force can be and that it can seem to come from nowhere in a tournament summer – there for the summoning if only a team, a manager, can push the right buttons. In short, it is there if you know how to find it, and Southgate has been more certain of it than any of his predecessors of modern times.

A glorious evening, Wembley in full roar as this stadium – less than 14 years old – has never seen before for an England game. There were just 60,000 fans inside, but it felt like a full house and more. For Southgate’s first game in charge, a World Cup qualifier against lowly Malta, hard on the heels of a dismal Euro 2016, there were, remarkably, 81,781 people in Wembley. That night in 2016 and many more never sounded anything like this one did.

In this tournament Southgate has advocated a conservative management of games, which built up through the meticulous dismantling of Germany in the last-16 to the cautious first half against Ukraine and then the unleashing in that quarter-final second half in Rome.

This time he seemed to read something else in the mood of his players and the occasion, and ordered up something different. His team went after Denmark in the opening stages and the Wembley crowd responded in kind.

This England team has developed through this tournament – not as they once emerged blinking into the World Cup semi-final in Russia 2018 but with a more certain sense of itself. Southgate set the press much higher up the pitch and against a very capable Denmark team, this was not without its risks.

This Danish side of Mikkel Damsgaard and Thomas Delaney and Joakim Maehle can pick their way out of a press, and on the other side of it they are very dangerous. Yet this was the tempo that Southgate demanded, and it was there in the forcefulness with which England approached the early stages.

Denmark are a compact, well-coached team who defended with five and two screening midfielders and tried to get Damsgaard into the space between and behind Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.

The goal the young Sampdoria attacker struck from the second of two free-kicks conceded in quick succession was a fine one. All tournament Southgate has said that in England’s planning for contingencies they had talked about what would happen when they at last conceded – what would be said, whom would take the lead – and the moment had arrived.

It felt like tactically, the Southgate experiment had never looked better. The quick attacking moves, of balls played in behind the defensive lines and Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling attacking from the byline, were a much more definitive factor in the game. It was where the equaliser came, the ball through the lines from Harry Kane, and the undefendable cross from Saka turned it by Simon Kjaer before Sterling could do it himself.

The whole Southgate creed has been the preparation for these uncomfortable moments of games when nothing is certain and the team that can make the least mistakes often triumphs.

England had overcome falling behind for the first time in this tournament. The game was tight. This was where the power of his players’ concentration in the crucial details would matter most.

While Kasper Hjulmand in the other technical area changed his players – five substitutions in 90 minutes – Southgate hesitated. His big change of the tournament – sending on Jack Grealish, this time for Saka, came with 20 minutes remaining.

It had been an exhausting game, at the end of an exhausting, compressed season, and the England manager preferred to trust in what he had. His team went into extra-time with their manager’s unflagging belief that the way he had set them up to play was the way they would win this semi-final. After 55 years, they finally won one. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021)

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