England achieve something they’ve never done before – and it shows the blueprint for Euro 2024 glory
After the record, there was something else to register for Harry Kane.
“Of course we haven’t achieved what we want to, but I think tonight was a big statement after the disappointment of the World Cup and for huge spells of the game, to play really well shows what type of team we want to be.”
That is of course a team that can go anywhere – to any stadium, against any opposition – and completely impose their own game. That is what might have been even more significant about this 2-1 win over Italy after Kane’s record. Or, at least, the first half might have been.
It is also about much more than winning in the country for the first time since 1961, or beating them at all for the first time since 1997. It was about the nature of that initial display.
England don’t actually get big away wins that often, but those that they tend to be memorable. In this millennium, there was the 5-1 against Germany in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, the 4-1 against Croatia in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and then the 3-2 over Spain in the first Nations League.
Two of them were emphatic thrashings and the last of them was a thrilling breakaway performance that suggested the team was breaking new barriers. This was none of those but the first half was everything Gareth Southgate could idealise from an England performance. You might even say it was everything he has been building towards, right down to how more of the academy products of the last decade were so influential.
It was actually difficult to see a flaw. The defence was assured, the attack potent and – most of all – the midfield commanding.
That was what really stood out about that first half and why, in its own way, it had qualities even that famous win in Munich didn’t. It was not a one-off circumstantial victory in that way. It was from a longer-term construction. It was control. It was also something new.
One of the long-term regrets with England has been how they just haven’t been able to control the midfield and the tempo of a game like a truly top-class international team. It has always been that missing factor, something to be surrendered to other nations. No more.
What was so impressive about this first half was how they took charge against passers as accomplished as Marco Verratti and Jorginho and just took the ball. That spread out into chasms of space on the pitch, where Declan Rice was simply charging through.
England, for 45 minutes at least, were at the level they have long desired. And while much of that is about team balance, it’s difficult not to put some of it down to the difference made by one player. That is Jude Bellingham, an attacking central midfielder many key figures in the club game now see as genuinely unique. He certainly gives England something they have long lacked, an impetus and thrust combined with control.
In that, he has the potential to be the perfect modern midfielder. He certainly gives England a new balance, around which the entire team can revolve. It sent Italy off kilter.
They just couldn’t keep it going for 90 minutes but, as Southgate argued afterwards, that was always going to be impossible away to a team like Italy. Similarly, that midfield of Verratti and Jorginho is always going to have a long spell when they keep the ball.
The lesson from this, to go with the confidence from such a victory, is to ensure the first half is much more repeatable; that it becomes England’s signature display. They now have the players and qualities required.
If this didn’t end up as memorable as previous big away wins, it was one much more instructive to recall in preparation for future games. It may be the blueprint for something even grander.