22nd June 1996, Wembley Stadium. Over 75 thousand were in attendance to watch Terry Venables’ England side defeat Javier Clemente’s Spain 4-2 on penalties, after the sides remained deadlocked at the end of extra-time. Misses from Hierro and Nadal proved costly for La Furia Roja as each of Shearer, Platt, Pearce, and Gascoigne stepped up to the penalty spot and delivered.
To this day, that triumph over Spain remains England’s only knockout stage victory at the EUROs. Even with the expansion of the competition from a 16 to a 24 team format, the Three Lions have only reached the semi final stage once in the competition. This disappointing form peaked in 2016, when tournament minnows Iceland embarrassed England; the final nail in the coffin of Roy Hodgson’s much maligned managerial stint.
But there is no time like the present, as England have been gifted with a gloriously good crop of talent, and a particularly nice route to the final, as they hope to make their best finish since 1996. And who was that opponent in said semi-final? Only the mighty Germany, and Joachim Low’s former World Champions once more stand in England’s path to glory. Lest we forget the last time Gareth Southgate had such a high stakes clash against the Germans at Wembley…
This time there is no Alan Shearer, no Paul Gascoigne, no Tony Adams, but instead a whole new generation of marquee men ready to take revenge. Captain and main striker Harry Kane, the frankly phenomenal Phil Foden, and a rock-solid John Stones have taken the place of those 3 aforementioned legends, but will they actually get it done against the Germans this time around?
If we’re going purely off recent form? Then likely not. Meanwhile Die Mannschaft came 2nd in the proverbial ‘Group of Death’ with France, Portugal, and Hungary. They were arguably the best actual team in said group too, being unfortunate to lose to France thanks to an own-goal from Mats Hummels, before pummelling Portugal 4-2 and fighting for a 2-2 draw against the Hungarians. Looking to put the embarassment of the 2018 World Cup behind them, Germany will look at France’s premature Round of 16 loss to Switzerland as their opportunity to reclaim their status as Europe’s top team.
England may have got the results when they’ve needed to, but the quality of football played on the pitch has been nothing short of shambolic. Progression and passing up the pitch seemed almost non-existent as Southgate has opted for a more conservative, safe approach to guarantee England points. To his credit, it has worked, two 1-0 wins over Croatia and the Czech Republic, coupled with a goalless draw against Scotland, meant England remain unbeaten and easily topped Group D.
How should England lineup? We all have our favourites in attack, whether that be Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, or Jadon Sancho, it’s likely all 3 of those names will be playing back up to Man City winger Raheem Sterling and Arsenal starlet Bukayo Saka, who shone in a MOTM worthy performance against the Czech Republic. Harry Kane is fortunate to still be selected over someone like Dominic Calvert-Lewin, after the 27-year-old failed to find the back of the net, and barely any shots on target, after the three group stage games.
Much of the British press have reported/leaked (depending on your perspective) that England are set to field a 5 at-the-back formation with two holding midfielders, so any hopes of England deciding to rage against the German machine have vanished. Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier are likely to start as England’s wingbacks, and will need to be constantly tracking forward and backward to counter the attacking influence Robin Goesens and Joshua Kimmich have had on Germany’s performances and success so far.
Going for a stubborn defence may be England’s ultimate undoing however: if there is any player in world football whose precise passes can unlock any defence, it’s Toni Kroos. Meanwhile, Leon Goretzka is also looking to be back to full fitness after his return against Hungary, so regardless who Low selects to be in the German midfield, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips are in for the biggest games of their careers so far against an array of serial winners. The question must be asked if Southgate is intentionally giving up the midfield battle to try and negate the attackers and wingbacks instead? Preparing to sit deep and play on the counter? I too forgot when Steve Bruce, and not Graeme Jones, was brought in to help Southgate.
If it goes down to penalties, then it’s anyone’s game. Germany are notoriously good when it comes to penalties, having only ever lost one shootout in major tournament history; a 7-5 loss to Czechoslovakia all the way back in 1976. But as I previously alluded to, England’s last Euro knockout win came courtesy of a penalty shootout, and England have won their last two tournament shootouts against Colombia and Switzerland in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Barring another miss from Jordan Henderson (the only player still in the National Team from when England lost to Italy in a 2012 shootout), England may fancy their chances should it all come down to that one little spot in the 18 yard box.
The parallels are all there. England. Germany. The European Championships at Wembley. The involvement of Gareth Southgate on the final result. The prospect of it all coming down to a penalty shootout. The hopes of a nation resting on the shoulders of the English team. The old saying goes that those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so will England make good on their one great missed opportunity from 25 years ago, and truly make it look like football’s coming home?