MARTIN SAMUEL: There can be no complacency for England against Ukraine

MARTIN SAMUEL: There can be no complacency for England against Ukraine

Remember Iceland! England’s last Euros was traumatic and ended in disaster so there can be no complacency against Ukraine… but Gareth Southgate has built a younger, brighter and better team

  • England take on Ukraine for their Euro 2020 quarter-final in Rome on Saturday 
  • Gareth Southgate’s side are overwhelming favourites after a stellar campaign
  • But the Three Lions will do well to remember the Euro 2016 exit to Iceland
  • Southgate has revealed the shock Iceland loss is a reference point for his squad 
  • Find out the latest Euro 2020 news including fixtures, live action and results here

The last time England played a European Championship match that couldn’t be lost, the 90 minutes turned into one of the most traumatic experiences in this nation’s football history.

June 27, 2016. England 1 Iceland 2. Many had already purchased tickets for the quarter-final against France in Paris, in anticipation of progress. And there was nothing like a landmark victory over Germany to justify the confidence back then, either. 

Gareth Southgate’s England are bolstered by an optimism and confidence greater than anything experienced five years ago. This is a younger, brighter, better England team, coming off the back of the most positive statement the national team have made in 25 years, facing opposition 20 places below them in the world rankings.

What could possibly go wrong?

Gareth Southgate’s England are optimistic ahead of their Euro 2020 last eight tie with Ukraine

But the Three Lions will do well to remember their last Euros exit – a 2-1 loss to Iceland in 2016

So seismic was the fault in English football that day only three of Southgate’s starting line-up, Harry Kane, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling, began the game in Nice, and only three more, Marcus Rashford, Jordan Henderson and John Stones, have been part of both squads.

Southgate has ushered in revolution, not evolution, since, the type that can only occur in the wake of catastrophe. Will it feel that way again if England fail to progress to the semi-final on Saturday? This is a young squad who have already beaten Germany, so there will be caveats. Unmistakeably, though, it would be a huge setback.

If England had been offered this fixture as a means of reaching the semi-final before the tournament started, a cry of hungry acceptance would have gone up before the sentence was completed. Saturday’s opponents, after all, were supposed to be Spain. 

Ukraine cannot be taken lightly, then, but they can be received gratefully. That Southgate has spent the last two days fielding questions about complacency shows how this tie is viewed outside England’s camp.

Only seven out of England’s 26-man squad at Euro 2020 this summer were in the 2016 squad

We have been here before, mind. In 2016, it is said England’s coaches celebrated the result that sent Iceland, not Portugal, their way. Yet with such apparent fortune comes a different challenge. 

England’s brains scrambled when they lost an early lead, then fell apart as Iceland went ahead. Chasing a late equaliser, a teenage Marcus Rashford won a corner. With youthful enthusiasm he charged over to take it. Not one senior player pointed out he would be better off in the area. The corner was wasted. England went home.

Before departing for Rome, Harry Maguire reflected on the anxiety that can overcome England when expectation overwhelms. He was at the 2016 championship but as a fan not a player.

‘One thing we haven’t had in this tournament to now is a setback,’ he said. ‘We have always scored the first goal, we haven’t been behind. We do speak about things though, about different scenarios. I think that’s when the leaders would have to stand up because we have all experienced setbacks at club and international level.

Harry Maguire (right) has called on England’s leaders to help avoid setbacks at the tournament

‘But, of course, we want to play aggressively, play on the front foot, we don’t want to go out with worry or fear. We want to be fearless, to express ourselves and to do that we can’t be worrying about the bad scenarios.’

It is a delicate balancing act. England need to play their game, the one all evidence suggests should be enough to defeat Ukraine, but equally they need to be prepared for moments of adversity — the troughs that Roy Hodgson’s squad found impossible to negotiate.

Southgate watched the Iceland game at home in Harrogate. He recalls it, not just through the prism of its impact on English football but on a personal level too, remembering the agony of his tournament predecessor, Hodgson.

‘It was painful and some of our boys were involved,’ Southgate said. ‘But it ended up as a reference point for us, seeing the anxiety when things don’t quite go to plan. I don’t like talking about it because I have massive respect for Roy, he was so good to me in my time here, and while of course it was a seminal moment for English football, it was extremely painful for him.

Southgate’s revealed the Iceland defeat has been used as a reference point for the Three Lions

At the time of the Iceland defeat, the Three Lions were managed by Roy Hodgson (above)

‘I won’t talk about it specifically to our players, but I do think that you shouldn’t avoid negativity because we do speak as a team about how we are going to react if the opposition scores, for example. Very often you prepare teams for 0-0 and you prepare your game-plan for that and the tactical element of it but the psychology changes with events that happen during the game.

‘If you avoid discussing it, that can breed anxiety when you are in the match. So when you’ve talked those scenarios through as a group, which we did before the last game in particular, then everybody knows how we are going to deal with it, they can make eye contact on the pitch and they are better prepared for those moments.

‘It’s rare you go through 90 minutes where you are not under pressure at some point. You often have to deal with setbacks or decisions that have gone against you, and I think that’s good preparation.’

What is guaranteed is that one man will be taking Ukraine very seriously indeed. When it was put to Southgate that he might wish to rest Kalvin Phillips, Harry Maguire or Declan Rice, who are all on yellow cards and would miss the next match if cautioned again, he reacted in horror. Not even Phillips, who has picked up 13 yellow cards for Leeds and England this season, including three in three matches on two occasions, will be spared the jeopardy.

Harry Maguire, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice (left to right) would miss the semi-final should they be booked on Saturday and England go through 

‘Is it a consideration?’ queried Southgate. ‘None at all. We have been to three major semi-finals in 60 years. The thought that we could be resting players — I can’t think of a nation that would do that and I don’t remember a nation doing that. It was different in the group phase when we rested Phil Foden because we had qualified and could do it strategically. So I understand the strategy of thinking it through but it would be a bad message. It would be thinking about the future and we should not be thinking about the future at this moment.

‘I was on a yellow card before the semi-final with Germany in 1996. You are aware of it as a player but you still have to be committed. Our guys are committed to each other. They know where they are at. We have to do everything we can to give ourselves the best chance of winning this game and then we will have to deal with whatever situation we are in.’

And what situation should England be in, late on Saturday night? They should be in the semi-finals. Ukraine are dangerous the way that all heavyweight boxers are, they can always land a punch as happened against Sweden and statistically they are one of the tournament’s fittest teams. 

England take on a Ukraine side who are dangerous but did scrape through the group stages

Yet they are also the seventh ranked of eight quarter-finalists and made it out of the group stages as last of the third-placed qualifiers. That, however, is far from the official England assessment.

‘The difference between the teams in Europe is really tight,’ insisted Southgate. ‘You see it whenever there is a round of qualifying fixtures. Ukraine got a draw in Paris in March, and we’ve seen it in European Championships in the past. It’s why Greece won it, why Denmark won it. You’ve not got to be the best team for a two or four-year period, you’ve got to be the best team over three weeks.

‘It’s about peaking, about reacting in the right way when things go wrong, it’s controlling what you can and not being distracted by the things that can go against a team and tear it apart –— from within the camp at times. European Championships have been random, although we haven’t really achieved either way. I don’t know if that’s because it’s random or it’s gone with form but, whatever, we haven’t done very well.’

Another narrative for Southgate to change then. First Germany, then Iceland. He has only got 55 years of hurt to go.

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