Only Gareth Southgate, the revolutionary disguised as a bank manager, could turn that into a good thing.
It is one of the few things the Three Lions have actually done the England way at Euro 2020 as they have turned convention on its head in this most unconventional tournament in this most unconventional 18 months. After a brief trip to Rome, they have a Wembley semi-final to prepare for.
The euphoric optimism that snowballs whenever England enjoys positive summer results is not misplaced. This must be what it feels like to be German.
Good teams grow into international tournaments. By the time the pubs emptied on Saturday, England were much better than when they opened.
They began in pretty fine fettle as it was, not having conceded in four matches and putting a major nation out – and not just any superpower, Germany – winning their first European Championship knockout tie via the front door, not on penalties.
They were big psychological hurdles cleared but as always there were still faults to pick, like the lack of goals from their centre-forward captain, and from set pieces. Southgate had noted how slowly England got to grips with last Tuesday’s game.
All were answered emphatically in a 4-0 win over Ukraine which rewarded Southgate’s patience and faith as Harry Kane scored twice, Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson got the others and Raheem Sterling kept doing what Raheem Sterling does at this tournament.
“We’ve ticked off the boxes as we’ve gone along,” said Kane.
Denmark started the competition with no points from two games but, powered by the spirit forged in a narrowly-averted tragedy (a proper tragedy, not merely losing a penalty shoot-out) on top of a fair dollop of ability, they have made the last four. Hans Christian Andersen’s boys know a thing about footballing fairytales after a Schmeichel won this tournament in 1992.
After hitting new levels of penalty-taking ineptitude, Spain won a shoot-out on Friday to show that whatever else they lack, it is not spirit. They have been dragged to extra-time in both knockout ties and come out on the right side. Having showcased the beauty of their football, Italy unleashed the beast to see off Belgium in Munich. Their gamesmanship was unedifyingly in keeping with some of their worst traditions, but showed more to Roberto Mancini’s team than just prettiness.
What would elevate all three is a centre-forward to bank on. England lacked one until Kane stooped onto a Jack Grealish cross at 6.41pm on Tuesday.
Saturday’s game was 214 seconds old when an exquisite Sterling pass set Kane clear to score again.
By his standards, Sterling had a disappointing season but Southgate stood by him, just as he ignored the angst after Kane’s three goalless group games.
As thunder and lightning flashed around Leeds like a corny horror film and England failed to drive the stake through Ukraine’s heart, the door to doubt was nudged ajar.
The perfect start, though, had the perfect finish. Heorhiy Bushchan denying Kane a hat-trick was the prelude to the cherry on the cake.
“In the second half we came out on fire,” noted Kane as 1-0 turned into 3-0 in five minutes.
Picking Maguire for the tournament despite damaged ankle ligaments was a gamble some of us scared from. Boring, reliable Southgate does not take gambles but sticks his neck out for what he believes in.
The centre-back from Sheffield has made England even better defensively and stronger when building from the back. He has got them scoring goals again at set-pieces, something so important in Russia, but non-existent until Saturday.
Having gone close three times against Germany, Maguire thudded a Luke Shaw free-kick into Ukraine’s net less than a minute into the second half. Kane nodded another.
Bushchan looked like he had spoiled the party saving Kane’s matchball-seeking volley but actually started it.
Henderson, recently introduced as Southgate began to rest legs and ward off suspensions, headed in from the corner, the midfielder’s first international goal at only the 62nd attempt. “He’s been desperate to score,” said Kane. “There’s no better place to score a goal than in the quarter-final.”
Well, I can think of two...
“Maybe he’ll go on a little run.”
That seems to be asking a bit much even for this Southgate team but England logic long since went out of the window.