The secret to tournament football is that there isn’t one, all-important secret. Champions must be stubborn as well as stylish. At Euro 2020, Italy topped their group with panache, the Netherlands with a glut of goals and Belgium confirmed well-known strengths. As for England, solidity is their main virtue so far, but with a hint of more swagger to come.
They ensured they will play their last-16 match at Wembley – always their target, according to manager Gareth Southgate – off the back of two wins; two goals scored; just a single goalscorer (Raheem Sterling) and no goals conceded.
That should leave some trump cards still to play in the knockouts. Harry Kane, leading scorer at the last World Cup, is waiting for his first goal in the tournament. Behind Kane in the manager's trusted spine of the team, Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson, who made their first appearances at the Euros in Tuesday's 1-0 win against the Czech Republic, have proved their readiness, after injury.
In the face of one major setback – Mason Mount being forced to self-isolate because he had close contact with the Covid-positive Scotland player Billy Gilmour – there has been an opportunity and a thrilling coming-of-age moment for two players who made their first tournament starts against the Czechs. Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish, both confident and eager to run with the ball at their feet, were involved in Sterling’s first-half goal.
Saka had looked like one of the last, most marginal picks in Southgate’s 26-man squad. Highly promising but there largely for his capacity to cover various positions, from full-back to winger to advanced central midfielder.
Sometimes versatility can be a disadvantage, but Saka’s man-of-the-match performance at Wembley has given Southgate ample evidence of the Arsenal player’s specialist expertise in one-on-one duels, in his eye for the right pass, his turn of pace. Saka is only 19 and has never played in the Champions League. That makes him a useful element of surprise to unleash on the next opposition.
“I cannot speak highly enough of Bukayo,” said Southgate, who will weigh up the competing credentials of Phil Foden, Saka and Jadon Sancho for the outside right position for Tuesday’s last-16 match. “His performances in training have been outstanding.”
If Saka has been a highlight of the Wembley experience for home supporters, even the most generous of them would acknowledge there have been turgid periods watching England. The goalless draw against Scotland did not show off the squad’s abundant attacking potential. The victories over Croatia and the Czechs had in common bright, purposeful starts giving way to slower second-halves.
“There is more to come from us,” said the England manager, who questioned why Mount and Ben Chilwell had been obliged to self-isolate despite returning negative tests after they had been seen in a 22-minute conversation after the Scotland match with Gilmour, their Chelsea team-mate. “It is a bizarre situation – they spent 120 seconds too long [talking to Gilmour] in a fairly open space.”
But it counts as a protocol breach. What is yet to be breached is England’s defence. “We are not fluent but we have moments where we look a good side,” said Southgate. “We are difficult to play against. If you don’t concede goals you win football matches.”