When Harry Kane opened the scoring for England just three minutes into the Euro 2020 quarter-final against Ukraine, it was hard not to be a little intimidated. Not that leading early is ever a bad thing, but it can lead to some complacency. Will England play hard for a second or sit deep, knowing their less fancied opponents’ game-plan is already in disarray? A one-goal lead is never safe, as modern football has shown time and time again. Attacking relentless enough can evaporate even the most secure leads. And indeed, as the first part progressed, there were some warning signs for the three lions.
Kyle Walker, usually so confident at right-back, twice made mistakes that could have led to goals. Ukraine manager Andriy Shevchenko switched from 3–5–2 to 4–3–3 knowing a goal was needed and Ukraine came alive for a short time.
However, England secured it through the half-time whistle with their slender lead. Come the second half and a new sense of purpose grips them. Three good goals later, they progressed to the semi-finals.
In hindsight, one can clearly see that there was not much to worry about. Ukraine’s entire Euro 2020 journey was based on fight and courage. On a technical level, their players did not quite match the British.
Yet, as has been seen with England teams in the past, quality alone is not enough. It is visible in the counting moments.
England look cohesive and clinical in attack
Coming into the game, England knew they would have to be on the frontfoot from the outset. They were clearly happy in attack too, as was demonstrated by the opening goal.
Raheem Sterling, who has been England’s player of the tournament so far, played a beautiful pass that found Kane in acres of space and left the Ukraine back-line flat-footed.
The captain, whose form has been mixed but who scored against Germany, obliged by toe-poking the ball with his first touch with an effortless striker finish.
Yet after some panic that followed, England knew another goal was needed – and fast. It comes from the Manchester United duo of Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire.
Shaw scored a free-kick inside the penalty area and Maguire delivered a precise header. It was just affirmation for both men. Shaw’s resurgence this season is well-known, but Maguire has also grown by leaps and bounds.
His return to the back-line has coincided with England looking more solid and some would argue he deserved the goal. Shaw, meanwhile, wasn’t done yet.
He played provider once again four minutes later with another fascinating ball into the box. This time, Kane met the cross with a powerful header and England were clear.
The icing on the cake came 13 minutes later. England had won a corner and Mason Mount stepped up to take it. His cross found Jordan Henderson, who had come on as a substitute.
Henderson, who had never scored an international goal up to that point, headed home in clinical fashion. Their frenzied celebration showed how much it meant to him. As did all his teammates to congratulate him.
What’s different about England at Euro 2020?
England will now face Denmark in the semi-finals at Wembley. With 65,000 spectators on hand for the match, one can easily expect another high-octane encounter.
Of course, if England win that match, they will play the final at the exact same venue. But we are not far ahead of ourselves.
Given the kind of disappointment England fans have faced over the past few years, it’s understandable why it’s okay to temper expectations.
That being said, this England team looks different from the ‘Golden Generation’ who flatter to deceive. For one, they look and play like a real team.
The England team of the early to mid 2000s featured a cluster of stars who often did not play in a cohesive manner. Some fans have become used to seeing the side win an out group only to fail at the first real hurdle.
However, under Gareth Southgate, England are not only playing winning football but also working as a unit. Dedication to purpose unites the squad, and it is a hallmark of teams that can go far in tournaments like this.
England of course also reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup under Southgate, where they lost to eventual runners-up Croatia.
As their win against the same opposition in this tournament showed, England are more than willing to learn from their mistakes. How different they are from the sides of the past will determine how far they can go.