There were glimpses of a gorgeous, aggressive England side at the 2021 Euros, and all of the pre-tournament concern about Gareth Southgate at the wheel appeared to be unfounded—right up until the moment he out-thought himself and put out a psychedelic nightmare of a penalty order. It was Italy, not England, who celebrated at Wembley Stadium after a tense 1-1 draw ended in a 3-2 penalty shootout win.
Before those penalties, there were 120 minutes of action where Southgate could have applied some more pressure. England started off with urgency, scoring before some fans had even sat down with their beers. This was seemingly a credit to the tactics: Harry Kane, so excellent throughout this tournament, slotted a ball to right for wing-back Kieran Trippier, who then crossed beautifully to fellow wing-back Luke Shaw for a striker’s finish. Two minutes in, England was up 1-0:
England kept the pressure up in the immediate aftermath of the goal and dominated the first half, as Italy’s front line mostly played like garbage. The exception was Federico Chiesa, who was the best player on the field until he came off with a leg injury in the 85th minute. As the game went into halftime, you would have bet on England getting another before an Italian equalizer.
But England’s attack eased up in the second half, and Italy was able to get back into the game. They were fully in control by the time a corner fell to center back Leonardo Bonucci for that much-needed equalizer:
It wasn’t until extra time that Southgate’s questionable management came back into play. First, he kept youngster Bukayo Saka in the game after he subbed on in the 71st minute and played rather poorly. Then, with a few moments remaining, Southgate subbed on Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, specifically so they’d be available for penalties. That turned out to affect the outcome, just not in the way he wanted.
Domenico Berardi and Harry Kane both made their initial kicks, before Andrea Belotti—previously a wonderkid and now mostly washed at the age of 27—sent his straight into the arms of England keeper Jordan Pickford. Harry Maguire and Bonucci sank theirs, and up stepped Rashford. He was cold after only being in the game for approximately four minutes, and an excruciating run-up possibly didn’t help him get into a shooting rhythm on the way to the ball. He hit the post.
After Italy’s Federico Bernardeschi made his kick, Sancho came up to basically do the same thing as Rashford. His penalty was easily saved by Italian keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who won the Golden Ball for best player in the tournament, mostly because he saved a total of five penalties in two back-to-back shootouts. Italy should have sealed it then with Jorginho, the best penalty taker on either team, but Pickford did his homework. The keeper knew Jorginho’s little hop-step run-up was exceptionally long, and dove late to his right to block it with his fingertips.
That’s when the most excruciating possibility came into play. With Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling still available to kick, it was instead Saka, the 19-year-old playing in his first major tournament, who stepped up with England’s hopes at his feet. It did not end well:
It was brutal and inexcusable that Southgate let Saka go last. Typically, you want your best or second-best taker to go fifth, particularly if they are an experienced player who can handle the pressure. Saka is a wonderful teen who will likely be fine after this, but there is no logical reason that he should have gone last. Southgate took the blame afterward, saying it was his decision to give that slot to the teenager.
You can blame Rashford and Sancho for not doing the thing that they were specifically brought on to do, but really, the order was the problem, and the blame has to fall on Southgate. Fittingly, the last time England was in a penalty shootout in the Euros at Wembley, Southgate was the one who missed to lose the match. That was in 1996, when England fell to Germany in the semifinals. He could have set up his team to bring it to Italy with superior athleticism and individual skill, and he could have pushed them to not sit back and defend the 1-0 lead for the entire second half. He also could have brought on Grealish earlier, perhaps instead of Saka, to try to spark some form of creativity. Ultimately, though, Southgate totally mishandled the last 10 minutes of the match, from the penalty substitutions to the order. It didn’t come home. There’s no excuse, only heartbreak for England.