England expects. But what exactly? As Gareth Southgate’s England team prepare for the biggest game of their lives, on Sunday night, kick-off 8pm, there is something a little different about the tides of energy and noise, the sense of all-or-nothing tournament jeopardy.
The usual pageantry is present, the bunting and big screens, the pub garden flags, the feeling of some shared village fete in train. Look down the match-ups, study the tactical breakdowns, re-jig with a Gareth-esque frown your own pencilled front three, and that old stab of excitement is there.
This is, in the first instance, a delicious-looking game of football. England and Italy are ranked fourth and seventh in the world. They have been the strongest teams in this tournament. England have won 11 of their last 12 games, keeping 10 clean sheets. But they haven’t played a team like this.
Italy’s football under Roberto Mancini is a kind of calcio appassionato, well-drilled movements performed by a team playing right at the edge of their emotions and physical capacities. Italy haven’t lost in 33 games. They have conceded more than one goal in a game only once since Mancini took over three years ago.
This looks like a champion team, with a way of playing, a vision of positional fluidity and high craft, that already looks ripe for post-tournament myth-making and era-forging. England’s task is to resist this narrative, to impose their own controlled rhythms, the Jeu De Prudence. It is a brilliantly well-set tournament final.
But there is still something beneath all that, a feeling of lightness. Southgate has spoken about his team’s sense of purpose, that winning the final is the only outcome that will be considered a success. But is that really the case outside the team bubble?
Losing at this stage would be a new and distinct kind of trauma. Zoom out a little and a second tournament final in 70 years is unarguable progress. The Football Association will be delighted with the success, sporting and commercial, of this England adventure. Selections, tactics, the mood music around this England team: this has all been vindicated.
And for the first time since anyone cares to remember the national team can head into a tournament game of event-glamour and impossibly high stakes, but not pressure in the old familiar sense – hurt, falling short, unscabbed wounds to the soul and all the rest. This is a more rarefied air.
There are other kinds of novelty, too. Here is an interesting fact about England’s finalists. Neither the manager nor the captain has won a major trophy. Should England take that final step on Sunday the European Championship title will be the first for both Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane.
As a player Southgate did win League Cups with Aston Villa in 1996 and Middlesbrough in 2004, both significant feats, as well as a First Division (pre-Championship) title with Crystal Palace, but these are minor gongs as this level.
It is something Southgate talks about a little wistfully in his first autobiography, written aged 33. In Woody and Nord he muses on the lack of A-list silverware in a career where he was for periods – in his own honest opinion – the best centre-back in England. But as a manager this still feels more like an oddity than an oversight. The achievements with England are tangible. This is not yet a coaching career crying out for validation on the confetti-strewn podium.
Kane is another matter. He turns 28 in two weeks. He has more than 200 Premier League and England goals, three Premier League golden boots and one from the World Cup. There is a kind of purity to this, and something thrilling about the prospect of Kane lifting a trophy of such scale and historic weight – which also happens to be his first trophy.
After the Scotland game L’Équipe called England’s captain Le fantome Kane. He touched the ball 19 times in 73 minutes that night, and played like a man taking a slightly careworn evening walk, keeping his steps up, while around him a high-stakes football match took place.
His reinvigoration in this tournament has been heartening, a reminder that even for players of Kane’s stature performance is bound up in details of confidence and organisation, at times, even, just how they feel. In a sense Southgate and Kane embody the same idea, that talent is overrated, that things such as detail, hard work and game-intelligence are the real dividing lines. Kane led England through extra time in the semi-final. He is perhaps this team’s single most intriguing presence going into Sunday.
The England captain’s club career reflects a note of callowness in the squad. Twenty of England’s 26 potential Euro champions have never won a league title. The midfield pivot, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, has been the heart of this tournament team, talented, energetic young players, unscarred by expectation, without a single Uefa club game on their records. But they had enough for Kroos and Goretzka, Modric and Kovacic, Højbjerg and Delaney, and their combined haul of 14 Champions League winner’s medals.
This paucity of established trophy-hogging stars is a quality England share with Italy. Only Emerson Palmieri and Jorginho have a Champions League winner’s medal. This is a team drawn from beyond simply the usual domestic powers, with players who have bloomed under Mancini’s hand.
Perhaps this sense of novelty, of cresting new peaks, is one reason this final is so hard to predict. Italy have many ways to score. Against Spain, Federico Chiesa finished a swift counterattack. The high press has also been a source of creativity, something John Stones and Harry Maguire will have to be wary of. Even without Leonardo Spinazzola Italy’s left side is potent, Lorenzo Insigne a player of real craft in fine tournament form.
At the other end Italy have fine individual defenders and high-energy midfield cover. But Belgium did dig out some space in the channels between the centre-halves and full-backs. Jérémy Doku caused problems making the kind of runs Raheem Sterling may hope to replicate on Sunday night . The attempt to isolate Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci against Sterling, and their efforts to stem that threat will be fascinating to watch.
In the semi-final Spain got some joy early on with the use of a revolving false nine system, the absence of the classic central attacker opening up spaces. Kane may consider dropping into his deeper role now and then rather than spending too much time walking backwards into the Chiellini embrace.
Either way, it seems likely this will be tight, that with six games gone and one goal conceded, England are going to take it pretty close to the last kick of the last match. It has been a run built on certainty, on details falling into place, on luck of the draw, and on that sense of novelty at each fresh turn. Sunday is a step up. But England can approach it in a rare state of calm.