By Simon Evans
LONDON (Reuters) – England manager Gareth Southgate prefers ‘managing expectations’ to euphoria, but such an approach is hard to maintain when your team has just beaten former German rivals and thrown the biggest party since the pandemic hit the country.
The crowd of 40,000 at Wembley had been particularly noisy, with local kick-off time of 5pm prompting many to take a day off and make full use of the reopened pubs and bars.
Hours after the final whistle on a 2-0 victory, the once self-deprecating but now ambitious refrain of “Football‘s Coming Home” could still be heard in the capital’s metro stations.
The morning papers have captured the mood of confident hope for a team without a trophy since 1966.
“Time to dream – The nation’s joy as the three Lions end Germany’s hoodoo and lead the way to the final,” the Daily Mirror front page said after what he called “the England’s night of glory “while the Daily Telegraph reflected the post-containment mood with” Finally something to celebrate. “
Even the Guardian, known for its more limited relationship with national pride, titled its report with “Like emerging from a dream in a strange new light”.
The bearded Southgate, who has the demeanor of a rather sensitive and supportive teacher and chooses his words with the calculation of a career politician, was however very “on the mark” after the game.
He quickly turned to his team keeping “his feet on the ground”, being mentally “in the right space”.
“It’s a dangerous time for us. We’ll have this warmth of success and a feeling across the country that we just have to show up to win the thing, but we know it will be a huge challenge from now, “he said.
It’s the fair and prudent approach for a coach to take, of course, but it’s not just those who wake up with a hangover and the flag of St. George on the kitchen floor who are expecting that they beat Ukraine in the quarter-finals.
By any objective measure, England are clear favorites for Saturday’s Rome game and are also set to beat Denmark or the Czech Republic in a possible home semi-final.
Indeed, a review of the two squad rosters ahead of Tuesday’s game showed England have an array of talent – skillful young players performing weekly in the Premier League and Champions League – who should have beaten a mediocre German team by their often global standards.
Much of that talent was left on the bench by Southgate, who rather than trusting Jack Grealish, Phil Foden or Marcus Rashford to dominate, opted to play five defenders and two defensive midfielders.
There is no such thing as a victory to change a narrative, and many observers have found the result to be a rationale for this approach.
But that didn’t seem to be working when, ten minutes into the second half, this trio of players warmed up on the sideline to cheers from the crowd, while their teammate worked with little tinkering.
Grealish finally stepped onto the pitch, with a loud roar and quickly changed the course of the game and possibly the tournament for England.
Was it Southgate’s tactical genius for introducing the Aston Villa playmaker when the opposition was tired or was it late recognition that had an overly cautious approach that didn’t work?
Either way, Grealish has shown again that he has the ability to shake things up, open up space, pull players towards him, pass people and deliver the deadly ball. Whatever Southgate’s intentions for the last eight clashes, Ukraine coach Andriy Shevchenko will surely be hoping the player will be on the bench again.
Of course, the style of English football will not be of concern to anyone in the country, if he ends his 55-year wait for a trophy at Wembley on July 11.
No one in Portugal cared about winning the tournament five years ago after failing to win a group stage match and only winning a match once in 90 minutes.
Likewise, you’ll be hard pressed to find a Greek whose memories of their unlikely 2004 triumph focus not on celebrations and glory, but on the defensive tactics employed by their coach.
England could win this tournament playing some exciting and entertaining football built around an exceptional generation of attacking talent.
But that’s not the way forward for Southgate – and if his more cautious, cautious and measured approach delivers a first-ever European Championship – few of his compatriots will care.
Anything less and you can be sure the story will change again.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by Christian Radnedge)