England have reached an international tournament final for the first time in 55 years after beating Denmark in their Euro 2020 semi-final at Wembley on Wednesday night. But the Three Lions have had to change and develop considerably over the years to even make such a feat possible.
England had the mental strength to come back from a goal down after Mikkel Damsgaard gave the Danes the lead from a free-kick. They had already survived a period of sustained Danish pressure before that, but quickly fired back to get themselves level.
But what was most impressive about England is the way they calmly controlled the game and managed to fairly comfortably see it out after taking what proved to be a decisive lead in extra-time. This was something that past England sides, particularly the ‘golden generation’ of the 2000s, never seemed able to do and they always fell short because of it.
Opta stats highlight that England kept the ball for two minutes and 41 seconds at the end of the game, exhausting Denmark and preventing any late counterattacks to force a penalty shootout.
Fully in control, Gareth Southgate’s team systematically moved the ball across the width of the pitch to rack up 54 uninterrupted passes to shut the game down and keep hold of their crucial lead.
Against Germany in the last 16 previously, England had taken the lead, weathered a potential German storm, and even clinically extended their advantage to make the final stages comfortable.
Think how that compares to years gone by, when England were often good enough to take the lead but lacked the tactical knowhow or composure to hold on. Opponents would typically be afforded the chance to build and build the pressure until the Three Lions could hold out no longer.
England were knocked out in the group stage at Euro 2000, but it could have been so different had they not squandered a 2-0 lead against Portugal in their opening game and a 2-1 advantage against Romania in their decisive final game, losing 3-2 on both occasions.
At the World Cup in 2002, England took the lead against Brazil in the quarter-final, only to wilt and let their opponents dominate the game and turn it around. Even when Ronaldinho was sent off and Brazil were forced to play half an hour with ten players, too many England players underperformed.
Two years later at Euro 2004, England scored early to lead against Portugal in the quarter-final there. Wayne Rooney’s first-half injury knocked the wind out of their sails, but they lacked the ability to hold onto the lead and see it through. A late equaliser from Helder Postiga forced extra-time, while England then went behind and had to find their own late equaliser just to force penalties.
Even as recently as 2018, a squad which the current side has directly evolved from, England couldn’t hold on to a lead and get over the line when it really mattered after Kieran Trippier’s free-kick against Croatia had given them an incredible chance of reaching the World Cup final.
Learning from those mistakes and developing things like tactical control and composure in pressured situations is something that England appear to have finally achieved. Now, there will be one last opportunity to put those skills to the test against Italy in the final on Sunday.