It just had to be penalties, didn’t it?
England’s Euro 2020 final heartache had an all too predictable end to it. A hard-fought campaign came down to five spot-kicks per team at the end of a month of great football.
We hoped it would provide further redemption for Gareth Southgate and finally bury that Euro 96 pain for good. Karma had turned full circle.
It wasn’t to be. After the highs of Colombia in 2018, the old failings from the white spot returned. Another defeat, perhaps the most crushing of all.
Southgate, the leader he is, took responsibility. He said the decision-making on the penalty-takers was his call, and his alone. Man-management of the highest order.
"I decided on the penalty-takers based on what they have done in training,” he said.
"Nobody is on their own. We have won together as a team and it is on all of us together to not be able to win this game.
"In terms of penalties, it is my call and it totally rests with me."
The truth is that the list of penalty-takers would have been decided days ago. The players had practiced and the coaches had prepared. The best five takers were selected. All volunteers, no one press ganged against their will.
Southgate has come in for criticism for his decision to bring on Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho just minutes before the end, rather than giving them a bit longer to get acclimatised to the game.
It matters not a jot.
Back in May, both Villareal and Manchester United did the same at the end of their Europa League final, and what followed was 21 penalties of the highest quality. United’s first two penalty-takers that night, Juan Mata and Alex Telles, hadn’t had a touch of the ball before then, yet dispatched their kicks with high precision.
As it was, Rashford – normally so cool and reliable under pressure from the spot (Moscow 2018, Paris 2019 anyone?) – this time got it slightly wrong. Sancho, one of the successful takers in the Nations League shootout win over Switzerland, made his kick too comfortable for Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Up stepped Bakayo Saka. England’s youngest player on the pitch, and arguably the bravest. It was a big ask, and it was not to be.
The decision to leave Saka to the end has been criticised too. Jose Mourinho, ever the opinionated one, said: “The decision of the penalty talkers, I think it is hard to leave Saka as the last one. I think it is hard for a kid to have everything on his shoulders at that moment. I just feel very sorry for him.
“In this situation where was Sterling, where was Stones, where was Shaw?”
More nonsense. The penalty takers are chosen because of the skill and ability they show in practice, not because of their age. Anyone who has seen Sterling miss three consecutive spot kicks for Man City would have had him nowhere near the first five for England.
And we all know front-loading the penalty takers is the best way of approaching a shootout. What would be the point in leaving Harry Kane to last if he doesn’t get a chance to take his because the game has already been decided?
Penalties are a lottery. It’s a cliche but it’s true. Younger players than Rasford, Sancho and Saka have succeeded in those situations. Better and more experienced players than the trio have also failed. Think Kylian Mbappe for France against Switzerland. Andriy Shevchenko in the 2005 Champions League Final. England have seen genuinely world-class players at the top of their form like Waddle, Beckham, Lampard and Gerrard all miss from 12 yards when the heat is on.
It must be remembered that Italy didn’t fare much better. They missed two from five as Jordan Pickford’s heroics kept England in with a shout, including saving master penalty-taker Jorginho’s effort.
Losing on penalties in the final is no disgrace. The overreaction has been appalling, ridiculous and at times vile. Everyone wants a scapegoat but three young men will bounce back stronger, just as their manager did 25 years ago.