Gareth Southgate had certainly earned the trust and the right to do whatever he wanted, in fairness.
England found themselves pitted against a second and final football superpower at Euro 2020 in Italy, unbeaten in their previous 33 games. In the tournament’s final game.
Like in the first match against a traditional heavyweight in Germany, a three-man defence – essentially five without the ball – was deployed with Kieran Trippier replacing Bukayo Saka and Southgate seemingly showing Roundhead as opposed to Cavalier traits in a line-up which raised eyebrows. A classic Italian approach, in many respects.
It took just two minutes for Southgate’s decision to bear glorious fruit and be vindicated.
Harry Kane found right-wing back Trippier, providing width in a dangerous right-hand channel.
His cross inexorably gravitated towards his opposite wing-back in Luke Shaw. While Giovanni Di Lorenzo ball-watched and dozed, the England man slipped around the back and was devastating in his finish as Italy went behind for the first time in the tournament. In the biggest game. All was set fair, seemingly.
A stylish goal and selfless too, emblematic of Southgate’s England. Kyle Walker’s run to distract Emerson Palmieri created the requisite time for Trippier to studiously pick out the Manchester United left-sided defender and it was a moment for the ages.
Sadly, the second half was much more depressingly familiar for those who carry the battle scars of watching England over many years of hurt.
And the penalties? Well, that was an achingly excruciating rewind to those days of yore.
In a tournament when England got plenty right, the penalties, by and large, were tortuous. Again.
Attempts from substitutes Marcus Rashford and Jardon Sancho – the ‘special’ team supposedly brought onto save the day right at the end – were awful.
It was left to a teenager in Saka to step up and take the last one and the outcome was so painful.
The game slipped from England’s grasp on the resumption. England dropped deep and were walking a tightrope, even accounting for the parsimonious nature of a defence which had conceded just one goal in their previous six matches.
Southgate put his chips on his defenders holding out and lost for the first time in the tournament.
Eventually, they would fall – as the press and the energy came from those in Azzurri blue and an unlikely goalscorer in Leonardo Bonucci.
England struggled to recover. The narrative had switched. Southgate’s reaction to the opener was the epitome of cool. After the leveller, he needed to show his nerve as a cold shiver went collectively down the spine of the nation.
It was the toughest of watches. It was never going to be straightforward, was it.
A heart-stopping moment and sign of things to come came and went on the resumption with Lorenzo Insigne firing a juicy free-kick chance over after Sterling’s panicking foul. A warning which was not heeded.
Clearly agitated in his body language on the sidelines, it was a game which had not been to Roberto Mancini’s liking, certainly in the first half and he was quick and proactive in implementing changes.
The pressure that Southgate was no doubt expecting did arrive.
A sea of white which confronted Italy was welcome. But further reassurance up the pitch was needed and after the dangerous Chiesa went desperately close, there was no respite with Bonucci scoring from the sort of range that centre-halves love. It had been coming. It was a case of ‘over to you, Gareth’ and the hint was taken with the energy of Saka called for as England moved to a 4-3-3 as desperately fought for breath against the Italians, who were as incessant in the press and they were stupefied early on.
The opening had been all about England and Southgate, a single-minded individual who does things his way and does not aim to court popularity by being crowd-pleasing in his selection. Shades of Sir Alf, maybe.
Amid a suffocating occasion where the result was, quite simply, the be-all and end-all and the only thing that mattered, England displayed tactical conviction in the first half. But Italy would respond and how.
Immaculate in shape, Southgate’s side were calm by and large in the first period, aside from a genuine scare when the dangerous Enrico Chiesa gave Declan Rice the slip and was a whisker away with a low drive.
It was a rare indiscretion in a half when he and his fellow ironman in Kalvin Phillips policed the midfield magnificently.
By contrast, the shrill of the whistle to mark the end of normal time provided welcome time to regroup for bruised England – who were stranded in their own half and unable to find a way up the pitch – and Southgate’s ultimate test was nigh, with plentiful options on the bench. Southgate resisted the urge at the start of extra time. But surely it was a matter of time with Grealish, Rashford and Sancho in reserve.
Patience was afforded Southgate, given the fact that he had got everything right thus far in the tournament. But there was anxiety for the watching millions on another occasion when they went through the wringer. It was not to be again.