After a tournament that united a nation, England’s dream of a first major international title since 1966 was dashed by Italy following a penalty shoot-out.
A tense game, which Italy edged, came to its conclusion with the score locked at 1-1, but Gianluigi Donnaruma’s heroics ensured victory for the Azzurri, their first international trophy since their World Cup triumph in 2006.
England had got off to a dream start, as Luke Shaw scored in only the second minute, finishing off a superb Kieran Trippier cross which had been the culmination of a sweeping counter-attack, setting the tone for what was to be a comfortable first-half for England.
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, had decided upon a change of formation prior to the final, switching to a 3-5-2 formation from the 4-2-3-1 that had worked so well in previous ties, in an attempt to counter-act Italy’s formidable attacking threat from the midfield.
In the first half, this switch certainly worked as, despite their domination of possession, Italy were restricted to a long-range shot from the dangerous Federico Chiesa, as England shut out the spaces and prevented any real Italian inroads into their box. The Three Lions also maintained a consistent attacking threat, as wing-backs Shaw and Trippier pushed high when in possession, a threat that Italy struggled to deal with, meaning England could be relatively confident heading into the second half.
However, it appeared that the half-time break came at just the wrong time for England, as the dynamic of the match immediately changed following the restart. Lorenzo Insigne and especially Chiesa began to cut in from their respective wings and find space, while in the introduction of Domenico Berardi in place of Ciro Immobile dramatically increased the fluidity of the Italian attack, creating the link between the midfield and the forward line that had been missing in the first half.
Chiesa danced through the England defence and had a shot well saved by Pickford. When it came, the Italian equaliser was inevitable. Jordan Pickford saved brilliantly from a Marco Verratti header which had followed a Bryan Cristante flick on, but Leonardo Bonucci was there to sweep in the rebound and deservedly restore parity for the Azzurri.
The Italian dominance continued for the rest of the half, but they failed to create any more chances of note, and the game was heading into extra-time, which was unfortunately, despite the nerves and tension, something of a non-event.
Italy created the better chances of the additional thirty minutes, with a cross from Emerson that was just missed by Federico Bernardeschi their closest effort to finding a winner, but the fatigue of a tournament that came hot on the heels of a gruelling league season was setting in for both teams.
Focus has turned on Southgate’s tactical decision during the match, and particularly on his management of the shoot-out
Italy began to sit back and England to dominate, but they were unable to find their way through the twin pillars of Bonucci and captain Giorgio Chiellini, who both had superb games and relished the opportunity of keeping England at bay with blocks, tackles, and organisation.
We were heading for penalties, a fitting conclusion to a tournament full of excitement. Andrea Belotti’s miss gave England an early advantage, but progressive misses from Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka allowed the Italian celebrations to begin, deserved winners in a tournament where they have undoubtedly been the best team.
The fallout from the match has been intense and, at times, vile. Focus has turned on Southgate’s tactical decision during the match, and particularly on his management of the shoot-out.
His decision to bring on Rashford and Sancho distinctly for the penalties is particularly questionable, piling pressure onto young shoulders – as everyone expected them consequently to score, they could only miss. Putting Saka on the fifth penalty was also cruel, a 19-year-old man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and the images of his distress following the miss were heartbreaking.
Southgate has, however, done a superb job with this England team, and whatever criticism is placed on his shoulders surrounding his tactical decisions, he has brought the country back in touch with their national team, and that can only be applauded.
He has confirmed that he wants to take the team to the Qatar World Cup in 2022, although he qualified this statement by saying “it’s an amazing experience to lead your country in these tournaments, but it takes its toll”, with the FA’s review of the tournament still to take place. After reaching the semi-finals and final in his last two tournaments, he is surely the man to take England on over the next few years.
Less positive was the vitriolic racist abuse directed at Sancho, Rashford and Saka following the penalty. For some reason in this country there is still a small, but vocal, minority of supporters who are happy to support the team when it is successful, but as soon as events start to turn sour, they hide behind anonymous social media accounts to abuse the men who were their heroes only minutes ago. Social media companies must take action to root out this rot that plagues their platforms.
The scenes prior to the match, of England fans trashing London and forcing their way into Wembley, also revealed the worst side of the country, and is a drunken culture that needs to be addressed to avoid turning back to the dark days of the 1970s and 80s.
For Italy, this is the culmination of a rapid ascent from not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, back to the pinnacle of world football. Roberto Mancini has crafted a wonderful side which combines strength in defence with creativity in attack. Donnaruma, who won the player of the tournament award, especially deserves praise for filling the gigantic boots of Gianluigi Buffon with ease, acting, despite being only 22, like a seasoned veteran.
Ultimately, the World Cup is only a year away, and both sides will be better for the experience of what was a tremendously exciting final. Although they are different teams with different styles and different players, they are united, for the moment, at the top of world football, and will undoubtedly be one of the contenders for the top prize in Qatar next year.