As the boos rang out around Wembley after the England Scotland game, the message was clear: the hosts’ performance was not good enough.
England had shared a 0-0 draw with bitter rivals Scotland at this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament. Elsewhere in the group, the Czech Republic drew with Croatia, but they topped Group D by virtue of scoring more against Scotland. So it would all come down to England and the Czech Republic four days later to decide who progressed to the next round.
The condemnation of England’s performance was widespread and overwhelming. After hitting the post early on through a John Stones header, Gareth Southgate’s team barely threatened, turning in a tepid and cautious display which neither excited supporters nor threatened the defence of Scotland. Former England striker Wayne Rooney lashed out at cacophony of boos, claiming it helped nobody. “It reminded me of my time playing for England, when we were jeered on more than one occasion,” the country’s record goalscorer claimed in a Eurosport article. “I can tell you it never helped any individual play better, nor helped the team.”
Four days later, CBS reported an early Raheem Sterling goal gave the Three Lions a win against the Czechs and the top place in the group. Undefeated throughout qualifying, in a group containing the Czechs, England was now undefeated in the group stages. More importantly, they emerged from those three games without conceding a goal.
That saw Southgate’s side remain amongst the favorites for the tournament. Taking a look at the Euro 2020 Winner Odds, we see that the bookies rank France and Belgium as the favourites, closly followed by England, Portugal and Germany.
Only four teams have managed to keep a clean sheet in all their Euro group games since the format was revised in 1980 – Italy defeated finalists that year, Germany, winners of the tournament in 1996 and Germany and Poland in 2016. For England, it has only ever happened in the World Cup.
They didn’t concede a goal in the second group stage in 1982 when the World Cup had a bizarre format, including two group stages. Then, 0-0 draws with Spain, and West Germany saw Ron Greenwood’s team eliminated without losing a game, having beaten favorites France 3-1 in their opening fixture. The only other time England came through a group stage without conceding a goal was in 1966, and anyone with a cursory knowledge of football knows what happened next.
Why is it that setting up a last 16 tie against their old enemy, Germany, hasn’t been seen as an achievement across the Atlantic? ESPN claimed Germany were ‘lucky’ to be in the knockout stage after defeat against France and a worryingly inept draw against underdogs Hungary. Despite that, the English press will look back at the 2010 World Cup, when a rampant Germany thrashed England 4-1, and feel the current team has its work cut out, but why should they struggle against a transitional Germany?
To win a major international tournament, a team must approach a game differently. In 2004, Greece won the competition with three 1-0 knockout stage victories. They were uninspiring, organized and focused on not losing as much as winning, but they lifted the trophy. England scored eight goals in the group stage, more than Greece managed all tournament, but went out in the quarter-finals. So, where is the pride in entertaining and losing?
Sadly, that is not a question England fans seem willing to ponder, as they demand style and substance, winning not at all costs, but with a flair and panache that very few ever manage. In European Championship history, only the wonderful Spain side of 2012 have managed to win a final that way, and they are often held up as an example of how to do things. However, England fans should remember that the Spanish side, the one that hammered hapless Italy 4-0 in the most one-sided European Championship final of all time, was not always so swashbuckling. They drew 1-1 with the same team in their opening game, only beat Croatia by a goal to nil and were held 0-0 in the semi-finals by Portugal, advancing on penalties.
You can’t win every game 4-0, but if you don’t concede goals, you’ll go much deeper in the tournament than a side that does. So let that be a lesson to you, England fans.