Keep Calm And Carry On: Why England Can Still Win Euro 2020
And so England got spooked.
It’s a major tournament, so of course they did, squaring off against the Scots in London, the Three Lions slumped to a scoreless draw, despite a considerable talent difference between the two teams.
Within a tournament that’s so far gone to script, this qualifies as one of Euro’s 2020’s most surprising results, and one that has long-suffering English fans staring worryingly into their pint glasses, terrified that the national team is set for yet another big-stage disgrace.
With that said, there’s enough evidence to suggest this underwhelming result needn’t derail England’s plans to end their infamous 55-year major tournament drought.
Let history be your friend
Champion teams always seem to look a little shaky in the early round of major tournaments.
At the 2018 World Cup, France advanced with only a paltry three group-stage goals, of which only two actually came off French body parts. Furthermore, their top place was secured thanks to a couple of uninspiring one-goal wins against Australian and Peru.
At Euro 2016, Portugal didn’t win a single of one of their group games and advanced to the knock-out stage thanks only to UEFA's recently introduced ‘lucky loser’ format.
In 2010, Spain spectacularly lost their opener to Switzerland, yet still recovered to win their first-ever World Cup. And while Greece shocked the world by winning Euro 2004, it’s well worth remembering that their place in the knock-out stage was secured only due to them scoring more group-stage goals than Spain.
Recent major tournament history has a recommendation for England, and it’s that it take a chill pill.
It’s more than fine to not set the world alight in the early stages, in fact, it could even be argued it's a more preferable approach to teams who've been able to answer all the easy questions in the early going.
Since 2004, we’ve had 4 Euros and 4 World Cups and bore witness to no less than 18 teams who've been good enough to produce flawless, 3-game, 3-win group-stage campaigns. Yet, only Spain at Euro 2012 went on to win the whole thing, with the Dutch at World Cup 2010, and Argentina four years later, graduating to the Final.
The reality is that the bulk of major tournament winners over the last couple of decades have tended to look more like England when it comes to the negotiating the early punches.
So that’s three-straight hours of Euro 2020 football for England where it’s safe to say that haven’t exactly thrilled audiences.
Yet while England have only mustered the one Raheem Sterling goal, they’ve yet to concede either, with their defence, perceived in some quarters as a pre-tournament weakness, largely excelling.
So far, they’ve surrendered just 11 shot-creating action per-90 minutes which is the 5th best number at the tournament, while their 1.1 expected goals against number is one that only Italy and the Netherlands can claim supremacy over. In fact, this is the first time in 15 years that England have commenced a major tournament with two-straight clean sheets.
And while no, Harry Kane can’t get near it, and Sterling keeps running into trouble, this English back-four is both well-organised, and seemingly impenetrable.
Tyrone Mings and John Stones have looked like beasts in the middle, while Reece James just slipped in at right-back against Scotland and amassed a team-high 93 touches, while completing 80 of his 81 passes. At left back, Luke Shaw also debuted at the Euros against Scotland and produced a gargantuan 322 progressive distance yards, which is a number only Spain’s Marcos Llorente has topped so far.
Obviously, England’s back-four can’t be gushed over without mentioning just how solid both Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips have been in the middle of the English midfield, with Phillips’ 72 pressure acts so far leading the tournament.
But come on, just one goal??
Sure, that’s borderline unacceptable. Three hours of football against a struggling Croatian team and Scottish team making their first Euro appearance in a quarter of a century and you’ve just one goal to show for your labours?
What’s more concerning is that it’s not as though they’ve produced a heap of chances either. Their 8.5 shots per game rank 21 of 24 teams at this tournament, while their 1.9 expected goals is a figure which no less than 14 other teams are performing better in.
Through England’s first two games it could be argued that Mason Mount has been their only remotely threatening player, leading the squad with 4 shots and 6 shot-creating actions.
While Sterling scored against Croatia, he’s otherwise struggled, and Harry Kane has been even more of a worry producing two incredibly pedestrian matches.
The reigning World Cup Golden Boot winner and 3-time EPL leading scorer has struggled mightily so far, completing just 59.4% of his passes, hasn’t procured a single shot on target while he’s been responsible for just a solitary shot-creating action.
This lack of production for England going forward means the spotlight is burning bright upon Gareth Southgate, while his response could be the difference between another failed campaign, or perhaps glory.
In particular, the figures of Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish loom large. This prestigiously talented duo has played just 37 and 28 minutes respectively so far which for many are highly troublesome numbers. Grealish is coming off a season for Aston Villa in which WhoScored assessed as the 3rd most productive in the EPL behind only Kane and Kevin De Bruyne. Meanwhile Rashford has combined for no less than 60 goals and assists for Manchester United over the last three seasons while also netting a dozen times for the national team.
For Southgate, ensuring these two are showcased more is imperative, while admittedly, doing so could be tricky. It could mean relegating the decorated Manchester City duo of Sterling and Phil Foden to the bench, or it could even mean eating into the RIce-Philips combo in midfield.
Either way, this kind of attack, as presently constituted, simply won’t cut the mustard.
So what’s next?
A final group-stage matchup against Slovakia could be the perfect tonic for England to score some goals and secure a top-place finish. Should they indeed do so, they'll remain in London where an encounter against the runner-up from a demonically good Group F will await.
While England have looked shaky, the oddsmakers haven’t flinched too much, nor has the Stats Insider futures model, which still has them as a 14.5% chance of winning it all, and a 40% chance of matching their 2018 World Cup semi-final appearance.
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