Saka Has His Pearce Moment as England Find a Way!

Posted on July 7, 2024

A Journey into the Beautiful Game

Many years ago, a friend of mine was guiding his son towards a career in professional football. I went to watch him play a few times, and he became a local star around Oxford, attracting interest from several clubs. He was a very good player but seemed to flit in and out of games like a Wi-Fi signal at a Turkish hotel.

The Reality of Professional Football

As the trials took place, my friend, who had been a decent non-league player himself, noted something that stuck with him and has stuck with me as well. It’s not always the most gifted players who battle their way to £200k a week contracts; it’s the ones who can deliver solid performances week in and week out. You could watch someone from League 2 score a 30-yard screamer in the FA Cup but never hear of them again. Like a one-hit wonder band, they enjoy the moment but then it’s back to reality. It takes more than flair to play for the big boys.

His son did well compared to most of us. He played conference football and earned enough to avoid having a traditional job. However, he also had other hobbies and desires that didn’t involve dedicating his entire life to football. The sacrifices needed are something we, as amateur observers, are largely ignorant of. As a young man, being effectively owned by someone can’t be easy, no matter how fantastic the rewards. Having your diet, exercise and private life monitored is all part of the bubble of professional football.

The Underdogs at Euro 2024

I say all this because I find it frustrating when people expect that at Euro 2024, alleged footballing superpowers should easily defeat perceived lower-rated nations. All the football teams at the Euros earned the right to be there. The ‘lesser’ teams all have tactically astute managers and players who, while they might not be household names, are very capable, highly motivated, and have nothing to lose. That makes them formidable opponents. Think David and Goliath, but David has been working out and taking tactical advice from Garry Kasparov.

England’s Struggle Against Slovakia

After a generally poor performance against Slovakia, one positive takeaway was that England has no issues with motivation and digging deep. Without that, it’s unlikely they would have scraped through. I’m not saying that it was a good performance (it was poor), but there was something reminiscent of 1990’s Germany about it. As an example from another sport, those of you who can remember the 2003 World Cup in rugby, England were floored by a late Australia penalty but picked themselves up to convert a drop goal when all seemed lost. Digging deep wins tournaments. Southgate is increasingly like the friend who manages to get you home when you have lost your phone wallet and keys on a chaotic night out.

The Match Against Switzerland

I was mentally prepared for yesterday’s game. My feeling was that England weren’t going to win easily and when they had the ball, they’d better keep hold of it because Switzerland and their very competent, organised team weren’t going to give it back in a hurry. Up-and-at-‘em football, which is easily demanded, would result in being picked off. Scotland tried up-and-at-‘em football against Germany and got walloped. They reminded me of England from another era—a time when “just boot it up there” was a legitimate strategy.

A Tactical Battle

As it turned out, a metaphorical game of chess evolved, with England having large amounts of possession and Switzerland staying structured, moving off the ball with the timing of a well…a Swiss watch. Saka was the main threat as England looked to find the gaps. The forays deep into Swiss territory were rare but dangerous, and England could have taken the lead a few times, only to be denied by great last-ditch tackles and excellent blocks on goal-bound efforts.

The first half ended in stalemate, but in my opinion, England posed the bigger, albeit sporadic, threat. The second half began the same way. England looked better, but then it became Switzerland’s turn to dominate possession from around 60 minutes onwards. England suddenly started struggling and sitting deeper. Then it after a couple of warnings, it arrived: a low cross deflected by Stones into the path of the increasingly dangerous Embola. 1-0 in the 75th minute in a nip-and-tuck game. It felt like a potentially fatal blow in a game of so few chances.

England’s Resilience

But, for any tactical flaws anyone might want to point out, this is a different England. Anyone who has watched them for too many decades knows what would have followed from teams of old: punt it up there and hope it lands somewhere useful. England, with the substitutes (reactive rather than proactive, perhaps?) coming on, stayed calm. As an observer, it feels frustrating, but I am slowly learning to keep the faith. It’s like trying to stay calm while assembling IKEA furniture—deep breaths and a lot of patience rather than tossing the instructions nonchalantly into the bin and kicking the fuck out it.

The response to what felt like a decisive blow was a good one. After a period of good possession, Saka cut in and arrowed a shot towards the bottom corner. Sometimes they smack off the post and it’s homeward bound, but this one nudged the inside of it and into the back of the net. Lift off; there would only be one winner now, or so we thought. The Swiss repelled a resurgent England, and by the time extra-time arrived, territorial parity was restored.

The Drama of Extra-Time

Extra-time was more of the same: get possession, keep it. Not the thrills and spills of games where tactics have gone out of the window, and adrenaline has taken over. Rice thought he’d won it but was denied by a fantastic flying save. Then, in the dying minutes, by accident or brilliant design, Shakiri smacked the post direct from a corner as a nation of football followers gasped for oxygen. You need luck to win tournaments and by Christ, that was lucky.

Penalty Shootout Mastery

Penalties. This is where I believe Southgate nullifies any tactical flaws with the calmness he brings to the team. He understands his players and knows which ones can block out white noise. I have to be honest here: if it were me taking a penalty in this situation, I’d be crying on the run-up, let alone the aftermath while my teammates consoled me. “We’ve all tripped over the ball on the biggest stage, Bob,” they’d lie as a landlord of a flat-roof pub started to piece together my effigy.

The penalties were absolute perfection. The early save by Pickford helped, but unlike tournaments past, England didn’t blink. Those of us who struggle with inner belief were convinced that Saka, then Alexander, were going to be the scapegoats. Thankfully, those tasked with kicking the ball into the net carried no such demons. They executed the penalties like they were on the training ground.

Forget the mansion, big cars, swimming pools, and Rolexes. What Saka went through as a 19-year-old boy in 2021 was beyond shocking and frankly disturbing in a supposedly civilised country. To put his hand up and say, “Me again, please” is something I have nothing but admiration for. When he rolled the ball expertly into the corner of the net, I wanted to cry.

In fact, being a silly old sod, I did a bit. Isn’t the pollen awful this year?

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