Gareth Southgate described the immense sense of pride he feels at having led England to a first major men’s final since 1966 as he vowed to savor the wonderful opportunity that lay ahead.
England face Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley on Sunday, having beaten Denmark 2-1 after extra time in Wednesday’s semi-final – a victory that owes a lot to street game management and the psychological freshness of the team.
Southgate routinely deflects questions that try to put him at the center of the story, but he allowed his emotions to kick in after the game against Denmark when he clenched his fists and yelled at the English fans behind one goals from Wembley – just like he did after the round of 16 shootout victory over Colombia in the 2018 World Cup Russia.
“To be able to hear Wembley as it was and to know how it will have been in the country is an honor,” Southgate said. “Because we are a special country, we are historically an amazing country and I know I could not be prouder to be an Englishman. I couldn’t be prouder to have the opportunity to lead my country so bringing happiness in these times when it has been so difficult is a very special feeling.
“I’m not embarrassed to lose my mind a bit at this point [after the match]. Once you get off the pitch you know you’re getting ready for the next game and everything that goes with it, so being able to experience that moment on the pitch with the fans is always the most special part for me.
England offered the latest illustration of their progress since the last World Cup when they ended second overtime, favoring maintenance of possession, although Denmark were reduced to 10 men due to a wound. Southgate, who swapped offensive-minded replacement Jack Grealish for winger Kieran Trippier, and went from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3, saw his side lose 2-1 to Croatia in the World Cup. semi-final, after leading 1-0.
“The players have learned a lot over the past three or four years, we’ve talked to them about it. [running down the clock]”Southgate said.” We used to talk to the Under-21s about it – that was one of the most important areas we needed to improve on – and we can still be better. But the players had succeeded and they did it very well, and we have the technicians to do it.
In past tournament failures, the physical strain of grueling Premier League seasons was cited as an excuse, but England were full of races against Denmark. Southgate noted that he and his staff “can’t improve the players physically, so we don’t train too much and we keep that freshness”. But they worked hard to stimulate them mentally, with all kinds of distractions during downtime, for example, at their St George’s Park HQ, from a golf simulator to the pool with inflatable unicorns.
“We felt that the environment we wanted to create had to be one that refreshes the players, that allows them to enjoy their free time, that gives them some freedom,” said Southgate. “You can talk about fatigue, you can talk about the season, but a good physical training and a good psychological freshness are essential to create the necessary energy. “
Italy beat Spain on penalties in their semi-final at Wembley on Tuesday, meaning they had an extra 24 hours to prepare. “It’s definitely a bit of a disadvantage, but we have to find the best way to deal with it,” Southgate said. “Italy’s record is phenomenal – 10 finals. We have a huge task ahead of us, but one that we will undertake with relish.
“What is Roberto [Mancini] has done and the way Italy has played over the past two years… that speaks for itself in terms of the wins, the small number of goals conceded. The style of play was exceptional.
“Reaching a semi-final in Russia was probably ahead of what we expected. To get to a final now, it’s hard to say. That was our goal, for sure. You are never quite sure how things are going to turn out when we had so many issues to sort out in the beginning. But here we are and now we have a wonderful opportunity. “