England’s new dark arts meet Italy’s old ones in Euro 2020 final

The window into England’s development in the game management department was two minutes and 41 seconds.

At the worst period of the semi-final win over Denmark; the anxiety-inducing, arse-clenching, can-it-just-end-now?, curse-word dosed close of extra time, Gareth Southgate’s men supplied their best stanza of play at this European Championship.

There was no need for frayed nerves among the England-dominated 60,000 in the terraces nor the estimated 30 million that were tuned into ITV.

The team were in total control, in more control than any generation in memory. Two minutes and 41 seconds of pure mastering in seeing a match out, in sucking the fight out of relentless opponents.

Denmark’s offensive might and legs had faded by 70 minutes, the former through a baffling triple substitution, but their spirit had not. Even Raheem Sterling’s clever, cheating, deserved – use whatever description is applicable to your allegiance – winning of a penalty that Harry Kane had converted on 104 minutes did not extinguish their battle.

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Martin Braithwaite narrowly shot wide… Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire conceded corners… but then, Kyle Walker sped on to a loose ball and kick-started a 53-pass stretch that made Denmark’s resilience redundant.

All 11 players were involved in possession, with substitute Jordan Henderson having the high of eight touches. Kieran Tripper, who replaced Jack Grealish – the popular Brum Town Baggio himself only introduced on 69 minutes – had the second most.

Every Southgate decision was turning gold as the ghosts of their tournaments past were so calmly being exorcised by England.

Italy, masters of streetsmarts, will have been impressed by that intelligence and confidence in killing off the game.

How England won the decisive penalty will also have been noted and quietly applauded along with Kane’s habit of winning cheap fouls to relieve pressure and disrupt the opposition.

Italy are artists in this regard, see Ciro Immobile’s rolling show against Belgium. Their time-wasting in that fixture to reach the semi-finals was a masterclass in sh*thousery. They scrubbed 12 minutes away, just like that, not affording Roberto Martinez’s men a chance to build any kind of rhythm.

Whether you like it or not, it was seriously smart – it worked. The showdown with Spain required Italy to shed their high-energy, expansive approach and return to the country’s trademark of indomitable defending.

“We had to dig in,” Roberto Mancini offered. “There always comes a game when you have to suffer. We wanted to play our usual brand of football but Spain starved us of possession. They stopped us from playing the style of football that we wanted to play.”

Spain’s midfield three of Koke, Sergio Busquets and the supremely talented Pedri stunted Italy as the selection of Dani Olmo as a false nine helped cut out the influence of Marco Verratti and Jorginho.

Azzurri had to find a way and it materialised in the immense block of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. The pair thrived in having to dog it out, in quelling Spain, in the suffering.

It felt inevitable that Italy were going to win the penalty shootout purely on account of Chiellini’s body language at the coin toss.

He was so happy, playful, confident that it seemed awfully unnerving for Jordi Alba. The Spain captain collected a soft, jokey punch on his chin and was lifted into the air by the defender as though he was completing babysitting duties not prepping for an all-or-nothing, intense situation.

Chiellini with Jordi Alba after the coin toss prior to the penalty shootout

Chiellini owned the minutes leading into the spot-kicks and imposed Italy’s will on it. Whether it was purposeful mind games or force of habit, psychology dictates that it will have had an effect. The study of shootouts, where body language is closely monitored, suggests the same.

Italy were outplayed by Spain, but it didn’t matter. They won the gamesmanship and the match. Mancini’s men have been the best team in this tournament and have always been recognised as dark arts specialists.

Whatever it takes to win is what will be done. England, in contrast, have never been quite crafty enough. They have spent so much time as losers, crying about Diego Maradona or Diego Simeone, or Cristiano Ronaldo…

Former players have bemoaned their inability to find the edges and use them, to invoke cunning when it separates success and failure.

Wednesday night at Wembley was the biggest example of considered change from England, of fully understanding how to play to win.

There will be moral lament that sh*thousery is now a mark of victors, but think of any silverware-lined team and there will be examples of exactly this: feigning an injury to kill time or stop the opponents’ momentum, being in no rush to take goal-kicks or throw-ins, gesturing for a card to be shown, stealing yards at free-kicks, the positioning of the ball at a corner…

These are all in the same category of going doing easily to gain a soft penalty, and regardless of which team you support, they’ll have dabbled in these habits.

Being good is not enough, just ask Spain and Denmark. You have to be good… and well-skilled in gamesmanship. Just ask Italy and England.

Sunday’s showpiece will illustrate which side currently has a better handling of bending a major final to their will.

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