Iceland’s last involvement in Euro 2020 came nine months ago when an injury-time goal from Hungary ended their chances of qualifying. They retain one distinction, however. It remains the case that the last goal England conceded in a European Championships was scored by Kolbeinn Sigthorsson.
When England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it completed a decade without winning a knockout game at a tournament. The embarrassment of the result was compounded by the wretchedness of the performance. The farcical element was amplified by the revelation that Roy Hodgson, a manager with a reputation for rigorous, if dull, planning, had chosen not to scout Iceland, instead going on a boat trip on the Seine with his assistant Ray Lewington, who had never seen Paris.
A different sort of humiliation awaited for England as Hodgson’s successor, Sam Allardyce, came and went after one game, albeit a match he won and for off-field reasons. Gareth Southgate stood in; he seemed both the caretaker and the FA blazer.
Five years on, with England potentially in their first final for 55, Southgate is established as England’s best manager since Sir Alf Ramsey. He has changed the culture and the results alike. He has raised the bar and expectations. Before they regressed, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England were a quarter-final team.
Southgate has taken England a stage further and in a manner that has flew in the face of their past. “We’ve knocked off so many hoodoos or perceived barriers already,” he said this week. Now for the next one: after World Cup and Nations League semi-final setbacks, it is the chance to go a step further.
Revisiting the failure five years ago illustrates how far England are the antithesis of that team. Hodgson infamously had Harry Kane taking corners. Southgate’s side have become set-piece specialists without wasting their best goalscorer by giving him dead-ball duties.
Kane did not score in Euro 2016; after a barren group stage, he has three goals now. Raheem Sterling, another who did not find the net in that tournament, branded himself “the hated one;” he is more loved now.
In 2016, Wayne Rooney was crowbarred into midfield in a way that scarcely benefited Dele Alli. That was England, forever in thrall to their big names, compromising others as a consequence. Two of Southgate’s boldest early calls were to ditch Rooney and Joe Hart. It amounted to a goodbye to emblems of a disappointing past.
Southgate had the slenderest managerial CV of any England manager since the first, Walter Winterbottom, but unlike several of his predecessors, he has shown a determination not to be swayed by popular opinion. Bravery has not come from gung-ho tactics, but from who he has played. “You know that if you change the shape and pick certain personnel instead of others and it goes wrong, you are dead,” he reflected last week.
England have floundered by picking semi-fit players in the past. Southgate chose two, but has prospered by reintroducing Harry Maguire at the right point while keeping Jordan Henderson in reserve as Kalvin Phillips impressed. He retained faith in Kane when he was out of form and was rewarded for building a team around Sterling when he had lost his place for Manchester City.
Southgate’s defence has been rock solid. Meticulous preparation resulted in a wing-back system to neuter the threat of the German pair of Robin Gosens and Joshua Kimmich.
Southgate has identified specific players for particular games: Kieran Trippier as a defensive left-back against Croatia, Bukayo Saka’s ball-carrying ability against the Czech Republic. Past England managers have played favourites. Southgate has illustrated that he values all but is giving preferential treatment to none in a tournament that has felt a job-share between Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Saka.
A less immodest man — Allardyce, say — would have boasted about being repeatedly proved right. Now Southgate may have two games left to carry on getting his decisions right. Given the influence of Denmark’s wing-backs, in particular the outstanding Joakim Maehle, does he revert to a similar system to counter them, and if so who drops out? With Saka back in contention, should he, Sancho, Foden or Grealish start? England’s past tournaments are littered with mistakes but now Southgate is a few correct calls away from legendary status.
Ukraine 0 England 4: player ratings