Regardless of the result against Czech Republic on Tuesday evening, England are through to the last 16 of Euro 2020 – the bare minimum requirement for Gareth Southgate’s side before a ball was kicked, or delivered by tiny car.
England’s run at the World Cup three years ago and the rise of a talented batch of wonderkids since has re-upped the hype and expectation around the Three Lions. Pre-tournament, several bookmakers even had England as second favourites to lift the trophy behind world champions France. Hmmm.
However, while Southgate has restored faith in English ability (at least pre-Scotland game) and exorcised one of the nation’s great demons by winning a real live actual penalty shootout against Colombia in Russia, there is one glaring issue with backing the Three Lions for glory: their knockout record.
Knockout football remains the end of level boss that England just can’t seem to master.
The grim reality is that England as a nation have been terrible at knockout football for some time. But just how terrible you ask?
Well, since 1966 and England’s one and only major tournament win at senior men’s level (sorry Le Tournoi), they have won just eight knockout games across 19 tournaments.
For trivia fans, the grateful eight are: Paraguay (1986 WC), Belgium (1990 WC), Cameroon (1990 WC), Spain (1996 EC), Denmark (2002 WC), Ecuador (WC 2006), Colombia (2018 WC), Sweden (2018 WC).
Just one of those precious eight has ever come at the European Championships, and that was a penalty shootout win on home soil 25 years ago.
It sounds…not great, but how do the numbers compare to the rest of Europe’s big hitters?
In the same time period, Germany (inc as West Germany) have won 34 knockout games across 25 tournaments (22 at World Cups, 12 at Euros). THIRTY FOUR.
Ok, perhaps it is slightly unfair to compare England to the most successful European nation of all time (even if we do like to think of them as rivals), so who else is there…?
Again using the same time frame post ’66, Italy have succeeded in 19 knockout games – five at the Euros and 14 at World Cups. Note: this total does not include Euro 1968 when the Azzurri won their semi on a coin toss.
France? A massive 22 knockout wins since 1966.
Croatia, who have only existed in FIFA formats since 1996, have five knockout wins already – including one against England, of course.
Pound for pound, England’s record at the business end of tournaments makes them one of Europe’s worst.
England’s post ’66 showing looks even more miserable when you take into account knockout wins in 90 minutes – just the four (Paraguay, Denmark, Ecuador, Sweden for the nerds).
It is simply a matter of historical fact that England simply do not beat quality opposition when facing them in knockout scenarios.
Apart from the Iceland aberration in 2016, England’s modern tournament record has been incredibly easy to predict regardless of personnel or management.
England will lose to the first quality team they face in a ‘win or out’ scenario, whether that is Germany, Argentina, Portugal or Brazil.
Try to think of a modern example of where this hasn’t been the case? I’ll wait.
The only post ’66 occasions you could argue that England triumphed over quality teams were the wins over Belgium (World Cup 1990 last 16), and Spain (Euro 96 quarter finals). However, neither opposition was particularly strong at the time and certainly not top tier.
It’s probably also worth noting that Spain had two goals disallowed (questionably) in 1996 and Belgium dominated in 1990, hitting the post twice…but, anyway, a win’s a win’s a win.
In his pre-tournament letter to the nation titled ‘Dear England’ for The Players’ Tribune, Southgate wrote of how England games have the power to bring the country together and create unique, ‘lifelong memories’ for fans.
The World Cup in Russia certainly did that with the penalties, Harry Kane’s Golden Boot, the songs, the waistcoats, the beer throws and the rest…but in the last 50+ years, England have precious few good memories from on the pitch when it really mattered.
As the second-youngest team at Euro 2020, this group of genuinely pretty exciting England players are more likely to hit their peak for the World Cup in 2022 and the next Euros in 2024.
The next tick box for Southgate’s side in its development, rather than winning a trophy, is simply beating a ‘big’ team…for once.
England’s last 16 fate depends on the clash against Czech Republic. Finishing second in Group D would see England face one of Poland/Slovakia/Spain/Sweden and a more optimistic route to the quarters – and the Three Lions’ second ever Euros knockout win!
However, a victory will see them through as group winners, with the prize of facing one of France/Germany/Portugal.
History says that is an automatic elimination. Whatever happens, it will be the true test of how different this team is from those that have come before.