The Importance Of Sound Strategy – Reflections On Italy’s Victory Over England In The European Cup

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It is sad that last weekend’s victory of Italy over England in the European Cup soccer final was marred by ugly public abuse of three English players’ penalty misses that some people thought cost England the chance to win its first major soccer tournament in 55 years (World Cup 1966).  Let’s be crystal clear, their misses were not the reason for England’s defeat.  That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of England Manager Gareth Southgate and his fatally flawed game strategy.  To his credit, Southgate has both accepted the blame for the defeat and defended his players.

How did Southgate fail so badly?  Going into the championship game, England had won five games and drawn one, while conceding only one goal.  England’s defense was statistically the best in the tournament, but its offense had been mercurial, stagnant most of the time with occasional bursts of brilliance.  When England had scored, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, and Jack Grealish had been involved.  Sterling and Kane had started throughout the tournament, but Southgate, emphasizing defense over offense, had only used Grealish as a substitute when England needed to score.

On the other hand, Italy had been the most consistently creative and exciting offensive team during the tournament.  They had scored twelve goals in six games, dominating possession in all but one.  Italy’s defense, anchored by the world’s best goalie, Gianluigi Donnarumma, and two of the world’s toughest and most experienced central defenders, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgia Chiellini, had allowed only two goals, one by Belgium (a penalty) and one by Spain, two of the best teams in the world.  

Everyone believed the game was going to be evenly balanced, although Italy’s superior offense made them the betting favorites going into the championship game.  Perhaps, that explains Southgate’s formation switch from the four defenders he had used in every previous tournament game, but one, to a 5-man defense.  

Good strategies are developed from sound intelligence and deeper analysis of trends and match-ups relative to the structure of the game.  Tournament soccer finals that end tied after extra time are resolved via a penalty shoot-out.  Five players from each team put the ball on a spot 11 meters from the goal line.  Alternating teams, each player tries to kick the ball past the goalie into the net behind him.  The team that scores the most wins the game.

Going into the final, Southgate had to recognize that in a penalty shoot-out, his inexperienced, legacy laden shooters (England has a long history of losing penalty shootouts, including the ’96 Euro final in which Southgate himself missed his penalty shot) would be lining up against the best goalie in the world.  And he had to have watched Donnarumma dominate the penalty shoot-out in Italy’s semi-final win over Spain.  That shoot-out also revealed Italy’s confident and accurate penalty takers.  While England’s excellent goalie, Jordan Pickford, had a tremendous tournament, Southgate should have assessed that the probability of England prevailing in a penalty-shootout against Italy was quite low.   

Therefore, Southgate’s overall strategy for the game, including player choices, formation, and substitution plan, should have been designed to win during regulation.  Given Italy’s offensive prowess during the tournament, Southgate had to assume that they would score at least one goal during the game, so his player and formation choices should have been based on England’s need to score at least two goals during regulation to win.  Hence, he should have started with his prevailing four-defender and three attacker system.  Having watched Spain dominate Italy by pressuring key Italian playmakers Jorginho and Verrati, the four-defender system would have provided the extra mid-fielder needed for that purpose.  It would also have added a creative offensive player, either Saka or Grealish, to generate more offensive pressure on the Italians.  Spain showed that the best defense against Italy is a good offense, and England’s team possesses some of the best and speediest attacking players in Europe.  

Deploying reserves is an essential element of strategy, and England’s team has a talented and experienced bench.  Tournament rules that allowed five substitutions per game, instead of the standard three, played into Southgate’s hands.  Going into the final, Southgate needed to focus on this aspect, because while both teams played semi-finals that extended into extra-time, the Italians had the advantage of an extra day of rest.  Moreover, some of England’s players, like critically important defensive midfielders Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice, had expended enormous effort in the semi-final.  They would need to replicate that effort against Italy’s world-class midfield, and a sound substitution plan would assume they would not be able to do so for the entire game.  Likewise, the objective of winning in regulation would require substituting his attacking players to sustain energy, tempo, and pressure on the Italians.  

Yet, during the actual game, it was the Italian coach, Roberto Mancini, who substituted early, and it was the Italians who seized control of the game and scored the tying goal.  During this period, it was clear that English mid-fielder Declan Rice could barely keep up, but Southgate only substituted him after Italy scored.  By six minutes into extra-time, Mancini had used all five of his subs, while Southgate still had three on the bench.  Clearly, Mancini had a substitution plan designed to turn the game to his favor; Southgate did not.  

Going into the Euro final, English fans had good reason to believe they had a chance to win, despite being the underdog.  Their national team is filled with young, skilled, and talented players determined to win a trophy for their country.   And Gareth Southgate, their coach had pulled them together and given them the confidence they could win.  But in the final, Southgate’s flawed strategy failed them, and he put his young players in an impossible situation in the final penalty shoot-out.

England’s young, talented, enthusiastic, and now finals-tested squad should be a favorite to win the next World Cup, but to do so, Southgate must learn and grow as a manager.  In reflecting on England’s England’s Euro near miss, the team’s fans should focus on Southgate’s performance, rather than their courageous and inspiring players.

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