Euro Ramblings – England & Italy: A combined XI by Jade Craddock

Coming into Sunday’s Final, I think it’s fair to say that England and Italy have been the most impressive teams this tournament, in terms of both their collective performances and individual performances. Whilst Italy have perhaps been the most eye-catching team, pairing their typical Azzurri solidity with dynamism and energy, England have combined stability with patience and a quiet confidence and both sides have looked assured and resolute. Each player has played their role and stood up to be counted, so, as the two teams prepare to meet, why not let’s indulge in naming a combined XI based on the Euros so far.

Donnarumma – Perhaps one of the trickier positions to call. Pickford kept a record five clean sheets in the first five matches of the tournament and has conceded only once, to Denmark in the Semi-Final, whilst Donnarumma kept three clean sheets in the opening group games, being breached in the 114th minute of extra-time in their Round-of-16 match, but not before setting national records for the most consecutive victories without conceding a goal (11 matches), and most minutes without conceding a goal (1,168). Pickford arguably had a Man-of-the-match performance against Germany, but looked a little unsettled against Denmark, whilst Donnarumma perhaps has not had as much to do (making 9 saves to Pickford’s 11) but was integral to the Azzurri’s penalty triumph against Spain. Five years Pickford’s junior, Donnarumma has perhaps shown slightly more consistency so far.

Walker – For me, this has very much been a tournament for full/wing backs, with some of the most impressive performances coming from the likes of Denzel Dumfries, Robin Gosens and Joakim Maehle, to name a handful. But few can compete with Kyle Walker in terms of his recovery and pace. Whilst he hasn’t got forward as much as usual, his presence at the back has been reassuring. Even when not having the best of games, he can still be relied upon in high-pressure situations and one-on-one footraces with any player in the competition. And even after 120 minutes against Denmark, he still looked fresh as a daisy as he sprinted from one end of the pitch to the other to take the ball into the corner. Aged 31, he’d be forgiven for seeing a drop-off in his fitness, but he makes 31 look the new 21.

Maguire – In tournaments past, England have anxiously awaited the fitness of its attacking players – David Beckham in 2002, Wayne Rooney in 2006 – so it says a lot when the nation was holding its breath on the fitness of a centre-back prior to this Euros. Tyrone Mings deputised impressively in Maguire’s absence in the first two group games and his contribution shouldn’t be forgotten, but Maguire’s return against the Czech Republic proved the mettle of the man. Having not played competitively for weeks, it would be natural for a player to take a while to find his feet, especially in an international competition, but Maguire looked like he’d never been away, in fact, if anything, he looked like he was playing at a different level. He has been a behemoth at the back – and let’s not forget his goal against Ukraine up top – so whatever fitness regime he’s followed with the staff at St George’s Park needs rolling out on the NHS asap.

Chiellini – Chiellini or Bonucci? Bonucci or Chiellini? It’s like choosing between a pair of equally fine vintage wines, one slightly older and earthier, the other marginally more refined and supple. Whilst Bonucci is slightly more cultured in his passing, Chiellini is the man you’d want beside you when backs were against the wall. His passion for football, for winning, for the Italians is unbounded and, as has been regularly noted throughout this tournament, he just damn well loves defending, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, it might be said. But this is a man who would throw himself in front of every ball, head out every cross and lay down on the goal-line to prevent a goal. Indeed, he seems to view goals against his side like an affront, a matter of honour and integrity, but he also plays the mind games incredibly well too. A good old-fashioned throwback of a player, but someone you’d definitely rather have on your side than on the opposition.

Shaw – My earlier allusion to full-backs deliberately excluded two notable names – Leonardo Spinazzola and Luke Shaw. Spinazzola has arguably been the player of the tournament, consistently impressing as a right-footed left wingback with his attacking intent and energy – he’s not bad at defending either! For wont of a cruel injury, he would get the nod here, but that’s no criticism of Luke Shaw, as I’d pretty much have Spinazzola as the first name on my teamsheet. In fact, Spinazzola aside, Luke Shaw has been one of the best performers, particularly in the latter rounds of the tournament, growing into games and in belief. He has perhaps been the most complete of the full-backs, never neglecting his primary duty at the back, but also playing an integral part in England’s attack – indeed, he’s joint-second on the list of assists and the only defender in the top five, ahead of the likes of Memphis Depay, Kevin De Bruyne and Joshua Kimmich – you’d take that.

Phillips – One of England’s earliest revelations in this tournament, what a difference that extra year made. Indeed, twelve months ago, Phillips had just won promotion out of the Championship, but outside of Leeds was largely under the radar, and had yet to be picked for his country. That all changed in August 2020 when Phillips was first selected by Southgate and, as they say, the rest is history. It is almost impossible now to imagine an England team without Phillips – or to give him his rightful moniker, the Yorkshire Pirlo – who quickly settled into the side and announced himself on the world stage with his first performance in the Euros. Only Jordan Pickford and John Stones have played more than Phillips’ 545 minutes for England at the tournament and this for a midfielder who covers every blade of grass – in fact, he’s covered 67.3kms of grass – the further of any England player. If Walker is England’s sprint king, Phillips is their marathon man.

Rice – Midfield partnerships haven’t always been the easiest things to come by for England, but in Phillips and Rice, Southgate has hit on a formidable defensive duo. Both humble, hardworking and selfless, Phillips and Rice go together like Ant and Dec, like Baddiel and Skinner, like Bonucci and Chiellini. The rise of Declan Rice has been similarly impressive to his midfield buddy, first making his breakthrough for England in 2019 before a couple of particularly effective seasons at West Ham pushed him to the fore of Southgate’s plans. It is easy to forget that Rice is still only 22 and there is still plenty of time for him to push on even more, but he already has the heart and enthusiasm of a lion.

Barella – In truth, there is an embarrassment of midfield riches across both sides and one of a number of players could complete the set. Jorginho and Verratti offer composure and bite, Manuel Locatelli dynamism, Mason Mount intelligence and Jack Grealish craft. Grealish is arguably the most impressive of the lot, but his ability to genuinely change the game from the bench – which is something that not all players can do – has, to some extent, made him a victim of his own success in this limited role, and if this team could only have one sub, it would, without question be Grealish; if it could have twelve players by some quirk of the ref miscounting, that would also be Grealish, but, alas, I think VAR may spot that one. Barella’s ability to pop up with a goal and get in and around the box and recover the ball, however, makes him an effective option and he’s rightly been a mainstay in the Azzurri’s setup.

Sterling – Going into the tournament, there were questions over Sterling’s form at Manchester City, with 10 goals to his name last season, on the back of 20 the previous season, despite seven assists to his name, and another Premier League and League Cup title. Southgate, however, stuck by a player who has been a regular for him and has stood in as captain on occasions, and the manager has been duly rewarded, with Sterling netting the first three of England’s goals in this campaign, including the match-winners in both the Croatia and Czech Republic games, and playing a crucial part in England’s equaliser against Denmark and the penalty that would secure England’s first final in 55 years and first ever in the Euros. He has played some 521 minutes and covered the third-most distance for England in his six appearances and is being widely touted as the Player of the tournament.

Kane – Oh how Spain and Germany must wish for Harry Kane – and oh how grateful all England fans are that he’s English. Despite a slow start, there never should have been any doubts over the three-time Premier League Golden Boot winner and having been written off after a ‘goal drought’ of three games at this tournament, Kane is now only one goal behind front-runners Ronaldo and Schick in the race for the tournament’s Golden Boot. And while his goals are crucial of course, this tournament has seen him play a real team role as a true captain does, going deeper to effect play and look to start attacks. When England were awarded their penalty in extra-time against Denmark, there is absolutely no other player you would have wanted stepping up then than the England captain, and even when the initial shot was saved, he was the first to react and to finish at the second time of asking. Kane proves the value of having a top-class striker in your side – just ask Spain.

Chiesa – Another position that is blessed with talent on both sides, including Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi for the Italians and Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden for The Three Lions. But while my heart screams Bukayo Saka, my head says Federico Chiesa to complete the line-up. At 19, Saka took to his first senior match at an international tournament just as convincingly as he has done all season for Arsenal and put in the performance of a seasoned pro. Four years his senior, Chiesa too has looked impressive in his first tournament for Italy. Despite not starting the first two games, Chiesa’s performances in his cameos, scoring the first in extra-time of the Round-of-16 game against Austria, has made him an integral part of Mancini’s thinking in the latter stages of the tournament and he hasn’t let his manager down, always looking to get into the box and take the shot on.

Manager: Southgate – Ultimately, the manager – and, to some extent, the players – will be judged only on what happens in the final, but really the job Southgate has done should not be limited to one game, however it goes. Of course, if (when?) England win, he will be heralded as a national hero, but he’s already made a very strong case for being considered as such right now. Indeed, the job of England manager has often been seen as the ultimate poison chalice in football and has taken some big scalps in the past, but Southgate has gone about his job both on and off the pitch in such a way that he has rewritten the script. Indeed, as much as he has helped to shape this England team on the pitch, his role in developing a new philosophy, building bridges with the media and fans and, crucially, leading from the front on important national and social issues is perhaps an even greater and more important achievement. He has united a nation, restored pride and instilled belief and he has done so with the utmost integrity, calmness and decency. Win or lose on Sunday, in Gareth, England should give thanks.

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Posted July 10, 2021 by Editor in category "UEFA 2020 Euro Championship

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