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England will learn from Euro 2020 - they're still on track for World Cup glory

Gareth Southgate
(Image credit: PA Images)

In 2016, France hosted Portugal in the final of the European Championship, and fell agonisingly short of glory. Within two years, they were world champions.

As the dust settles on a gut-wrenching conclusion to Euro 2020, England need look only to Les Bleus to see that a final defeat need not be the end. If anything, it can be the beginning.

By reaching their first men's final since 1966, the Three Lions made history this summer, and gave the nation memories that will stay within them for a lifetime. Stay on their current path, and glory is still within reach in Qatar next December.

An opportunity missed

The truth with any major tournament, by its very nature, is that unless you lift the trophy, it's destined to end with defeat, heartbreak and regret. England have discovered that many times over the years. Even if you reach the final, sadly it still remains true.

Undoubtedly, this tournament was a golden opportunity for the Three Lions. Originally, only three Euro 2020 fixtures were ever due to take place in England - both semi finals and the final, which Wembley won after Munich pulled out of the bidding, in exchange for Germany hosting Euro 2024.

Brussels was due to host three group games and one last 16 tie at their new Eurostadium, only for the venue to be delayed, forcing their withdrawal in 2017. The matches were given to Wembley, and suddenly England had all of their group fixtures at home.

Wembley

(Image credit: PA Images)

They still weren't due to play at home in the second round - the last 16 tie that Wembley inherited from Brussels was the one that ultimately saw Italy take on Austria.

But when Dublin pulled out of the Euros this April, the FA smartly angled to take on that last 16 fixture, too, aware it would involve England if the Three Lions won their group.

Suddenly, England had a route to glory that would involve six out of seven games at Wembley. By accident rather than design, it had turned into a home tournament - one they won't see again for at least nine years, depending on the success of their 2030 World Cup bid.

A squad that will get better

England's squad will be much changed by 2030, but that doesn't mean they can't win a tournament before then, as France proved on Russian soil in 2018.

The merest glance at their current roster suggests that, home advantage or no home advantage, they will surely still be a potential contender at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

None of the current squad appear to be on the verge of retirement - Jordan Henderson and Kyle Walker are both 31, but Henderson didn't start at this tournament anyway, and England aren't exactly short of right backs if Walker's performances start to dip.

Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden

(Image credit: PA Images)

Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling should still be as effective as ever by the end of 2022, while the emerging Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho will both have an extra 18 months of experience. Marcus Rashford will hopefully be fully fit, too, after battling through recent months with a shoulder problem.

The defensive spine of Harry Maguire, John Stones and Jordan Pickford seems likely to remain, having proved their credentials once and for all at this tournament. Many cited England's rearguard as their main concern going into Euro 2020, but in fact it was their strength - they conceded only twice in seven games.

In midfield, Declan Rice will hopefully continue his maturation, having impressed during these Euros - the 22-year-old was superb against Italy, and much missed when he was substituted. Kalvin Phillips and Mason Mount now have tournament experience under their belts, and that's before we even consider Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham - arguably the two bright English prospects in years.

Jude Bellingham

(Image credit: PA Images)

Bellingham will still only be 19, but potentially pushing for a starting spot, if he continues at his current rate of development. Who knows how good Foden could be, after another 18 months under Pep Guardiola?

Ultimately, Gareth Southgate might need to find a way of getting Foden and Mount into the same central midfield, if they continue to emerge as two of the most impressive talents in European football.

Everything points to England's squad being even better in Qatar than it is now - they certainly shouldn't be short of options. 

"England's bench could probably have made it to the final on their own," Giorgio Chiellini said of their Euro 2020 squad. "They have some extraordinary players."

Things to learn from

Despite that, there are still things that England can learn from Euro 2020, things they can do differently next time around.

One is largely down to experience. In recent days, Harry Kane spoke of how he was running on empty at the end of the 2018 World Cup, that the euphoria of the Colombia game had taken a lot out of him mentally.

According to Kane, it affected his performance in the semi final against Croatia, and it looked like it may have affected others too.

This time, one wonders whether that was partly a factor against Italy. Reaching a first final since 1966 was a huge moment for the Three Lions, and understandably it was celebrated almost as if England had won the trophy itself.

Harry Maguire

(Image credit: PA Images)

Did it take a little energy out of them, by the time the final came around? Only the players know whether it affected them mentally, but certainly there were signs that they weren't at peak levels physically - particularly when the entire back four looked out on their feet during a break in play in extra time. All four had hands on knees for a good 30 seconds.

If England can reach another final, the result of the semi final will not need to feel so monumental, so potentially draining. It wouldn't be this squad's first rodeo, just as it wasn't for Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini at Wembley.

The Italian duo were the only players on the pitch to have previously played in a major final at international level - one scored the Azzurri's equaliser, the other lifted the trophy. Their previous experience was a losing experience, against Spain in 2012, but it was vital. Now England's players have it too.

Southgate's food for thought

Gareth Southgate is still learning as manager too, as he would freely admit. The England boss couldn't claim to have quite the same experience as Roberto Mancini going into the final of Euro 2020 final, and maybe there are things he might have done differently in hindsight.

The switch to a 3-4-3 system worked perfectly against Germany, but it worked less well against the Azzurri. True, it meant that Kieran Trippier was on the pitch to provide the assist for Luke Shaw's early goal, but after that England ceded the initiative for too long.

Italy were able to play three versus two in central midfield and dominate possession, just like Croatia had done when they came from behind to win the World Cup semi final in 2018. England defended well for a long period, but eventually Italy's possession told, and Southgate responded to their equaliser by quickly reverting back to 4-3-3.

Marcus Rashford

(Image credit: PA Images)

The manager's penalty strategy could have looked like genius had it paid off, but ultimately that went awry too. Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho had apparently both impressed with spot kicks in training, but they'd barely played at the tournament itself.

Bringing them on for the shoot-out almost placed them in a no-win situation, thrust into the game and asked to take the most crucial spot kicks of their lives, after what must surely have been a challenging few weeks for each of them. Ultimately, neither had the confidence to deliver at that vital moment.

Southgate might ponder on those decisions before the next tournament comes around, but overall he's clearly done a wonderful job.

He got many other tactical calls spot on during Euro 2020, took England further than any manager other than Sir Alf Ramsey, and has fostered a unity among his players that wasn't always there in previous eras.

Gareth Southgate

(Image credit: PA Images)

Not just that, but he is being seen an example to coaches around Europe. “I want to congratulate my colleague Gareth," Denmark boss Kasper Hjulmand said after the semi final, completely unprompted.

"I followed what the FA has done and how he works with the young players, how he behaves, with the values he has. How he represents and communicates is outstanding. Congratulations Gareth, you are doing a great job in a difficult job.”

The Three Lions may not have won this tournament, but they're very much on the right path. "The two targets I have for the England team are, one, to at least reach the semi finals of Euro 2020 and, two, win the World Cup in 2022," Greg Dyke said in 2013, during his time as FA chairman. If anything, they're ahead of the game.

France followed Euros disappointment with World Cup glory. Now England must believe they can do the same.

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