Did Southgate finally get it wrong?

Italy defeated England in the Euro 2020 final today on penalty kicks. The score was 1-1 after 120 minutes. The penalty kick tally was 3-2 in favor of Italy. The two teams combined to convert a substandard 50 percent of their spot kicks.

Gareth Southgate, England’s manager, has done a great job with the English team. In 2018, he took a squad of chronic underachievers — bounced from Euro 2016 by Iceland — and coached it to England’s first World Cup semifinal since 1990. This year, he took England to its first Euro final ever.

Throughout this tournament his tactics have been spot on, as I’ve tried to show. Today, he switched formations, reverting to the three center back lineup he had used against Germany, but no one else.

Unlike the Germany game, however, this wasn’t a case of matching up. Italy plays 4-3-3, just like England usually does.

Nor was Southgate’s strategy required to prevent Italy’s fullbacks from running at his defense. Italy’s right back, DiLorenzo, is no threat going forward. Its regular left back, Spinazzola, was a massive threat, but he’s been out injured. His replacement, Emerson, is a capable attacker, but not to the point that England needed a wingback to help stop him.

So why deploy wingbacks? Possibly to free Kyle Walker of attacking responsibilities so he could concentrate on stopping Insigne, Italy’s excellent left-side forward. Possibly to take advantage of Kieran Trippier’s crossing ability from the right wing.

If so, the move worked in both respects. Insigne played well, but did not terrorize England. (Unfortunately Chiesa, playing mostly on the right, did.) And it was Trippier’s great cross (one of several) that resulted in England’s goal in the opening minutes of the match.

Soon, however, England was on the back foot, defending in large numbers and offering little in attack. Was this Southgate’s strategy or simply the players’ natural urge to protect a lead?

In either case, I thought it was a mistake. Remember, though, Italy is the better team. The Italians are capable of slicing through opposing defenses like a knife through butter. Had England played more expansively, it might have lost 2-1 or 3-1 in regular time.

By extra time, Italy had replaced its entire front three (Chiesa due to injury). As would be expected, the replacement three posed less of a threat than their predecessors to England.

Southgate, by contrast, still had Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling on the field and they were joined by the threat that is Jack Grealish off the bench. This threesome caused problems for Italy’s tiring defense, but could not produce a goal.

It was in the penalty shootout that Southgate might finally have gotten it wrong. His selection of penalty takers will leave him open to second guessing.

I should preface my second guessing by stipulating that anyone can miss a penalty kick in a high stakes shootout. Ask Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio, the stars of Italy’s 1994 World Cup team, both of whom missed their spot kicks in the final against Brazil. Ask Arsenal legend Liam Brady. In the first shootout I ever watched, he missed his penalty kick against Valencia in the old Cup Winners Cup. So did Valencia’s Mario Kempes, hero of the 1978 World Cup.

That said, I think it’s better to trust experienced players when the stakes are so high and the tension so great. Yet, Southgate picked Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka to take England’s vital fourth and fifth kicks. Both failed badly.

Sancho is only 21 years old. In addition, he had only just entered the match for the purpose of taking a penalty kick. I don’t think he had kicked a ball until he took the spot kick.

Saka is only 19. At the beginning of the most recent EPL season, he wasn’t even starting regularly for his club, Arsenal.

It was asking a lot of such young players to take these kicks. Too much, it turned out.

We are not privy, of course, to what goes on when England trains. It’s probable (almost certain, I’d say) that Saka and Sancho were banging in penalty kicks virtually without fail in practice. But making these kicks in practice is nothing like making them in the pressure of a Euro final.

Why not entrust the task to a veteran like Grealish or Luke Shaw who had a tremendous tournament and took responsibility for many of England’s kicks on set pieces? Or to Kalvin Phillips or John Stones, both of whom hit accurate long passes and through balls during the tournament?

It’s possible that some of these players told Southgate they didn’t want to be involved in a shootout. It happens. And again, any of these players might have missed a spot kick.

Thus, we can’t say for sure that Southgate got the penalty kicks wrong. I suspect, however, that he did.

To his credit, Southgate is taking the blame. He said:

We win and lose as a team, and the penalty takers are my call. We’ve worked on them in training; that’s my decision. That’s not down to the players.

Tonight, it hasn’t gone for us, but we know they were the best takers we had left on the pitch. We tried to get those players onto the pitch. We’d already had to take a couple off during the game itself. So, yeah, of course it is going to be heartbreaking for the boys, but they are not to blame for that; that’s my call as a coach.

It happens that Sancho and Saka are Black. So is Marcus Rashford, who also missed from the spot.

Reportedly, the three are taking racist abuse for their misses. I don’t know how widespread this is or whether the media and the football bureaucracy are making more of the abuse than the amount of it warrants.

However, it’s disgraceful that anyone would heap abuse, racist or otherwise, on these three players. All three contributed to England’s unprecedented success at this tournament and Rashford made his PK at the last World Cup when England beat Columbia on penalty kicks. All three had the courage to step up and take a kick with everything on the line and the whole soccer world watching.

No doubt, all three are gutted tonight. But they should be proud of themselves and England should be proud of them and the entire team, as I’m sure the overwhelming majority of English men and women are.

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