England reporter notebook: Italy represent biggest challenge of Gareth Southgate's career

July 09, 2021

Sky Sports News' England man Rob Dorsett reports from St George's Park as Gareth Southgate prepares for the country's biggest game in 55 years with Italy standing in the way of Euro 2020 glory...

'Quick turnaround for biggest ever game'

Thursday was all about recovery from an England perspective. They split the squad down the middle with the 13 who hadn't featured against Denmark out on the grass. The 13 that had went through a recovery session indoors, whether in the gym or the hydrotherapy pool, had massages and physio.

Gareth Southgate has been very keen to make sure there was an emotional recovery for those players as well. The 120 minutes in the semi-final had an emotional as well as a physical drain on the players.

Friday is all about preparation and is the first time they are looking ahead and planning specifically with Italy in mind. It's going to be a really tough challenge against a team that hasn't lost an international match in 33 games. It's a really quick turnaround for England, the quickest they've had in the tournament.

Southgate will have only two training sessions with the full squad available - Friday and Saturday - to get his tactical plan in place. Most people agree, myself included, that Italy have been the best side throughout this tournament, and this will be the biggest challenge that Southgate has faced in his managerial career.

It's certainly the biggest game the England players will have ever been involved in - even those who have been involved in Champions League finals recently.

What tactical plan is Southgate devising?

I feel there will be very little change. The sense that I'm getting from around the camp is that there will be very little change in Southgate's tactics, which have been consistent throughout this tournament. He's only changed his formation once, when he went to three centre-backs against Germany and that was a specific plan to deal with their world-class attacking wing-backs Robin Gosens and Joshua Kimmich.

I would expect him to stick with a flat back four as he has done for every other match in this tournament. He likes that formation because it enables him to have two holding midfield players in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips to offer extra protection for the defence but crucially enables him to get Mason Mount onto the pitch in a No 8/10 role.

When England played against Germany with effectively five at the back, I think Southgate felt they missed a little bit of that creative security on the ball that Mount provides. There were only really two positions up for grabs for the semi-final - but I think it's now only one position for the final.

Kyle Walker was absolutely outstanding against Denmark. His pace and ability to sweep around the back of John Stones and Harry Maguire if anybody broke through the defensive line has really cemented Southgate's mind so I fully expect it to be a back four of Luke Shaw, Stones, Maguire and Walker.

The only real question I think is who is going to start in that right attacking position? Will he consider bringing Jadon Sancho back in place of Bukayo Saka or does he still want the extra defensive qualities that Saka offers?

What's also interesting is that Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are 34 and 36 respectively so you just wonder whether Southgate is thinking about a bit of youthful pace to attack those centre-backs.

A pathway to success years in the making

When England got to the semi-finals of the World Cup three years ago, it surprised the nation and to a certain extent it also surprised Southgate and the FA.

They didn't expect that level of success so quickly. I don't think Southgate would say they were unprepared for it, but certainly since Russia 2018, he and his assistant Steve Holland have spent an awful lot of time analysing what makes a successful team at a major tournament.

What they've decided and developed is the plan we've seen before us at this Euros. They've built a team that is defensively strong and a side that dominates possession. It's a team that uses the high press but only at certain times in the game when they feel it's right to do so.

They don't expend too much energy and it's a game plan that uses a solid set formation for the vast majority of the opening hour but then when the time is right, that's when Southgate brings on Jack Grealish or one of the other explosive attacking options on the bench to try and win the game for England.

It's a plan that has worked effectively up to this point and I feel he will continue in exactly the same way for the final. There won't be any change in the message to the England players, and the FA has prepared for this day with Southgate as a key part of it for many years.

There was a key strategic change in 2014 when Southgate was the Under 21s manager. Dan Ashworth, the then Elite Development manager, brought in this phrase 'England DNA'. It was trying to create a very obvious pathway to success through the junior teams into the senior team.

Southgate and the FA feel now that they're ready for this because they had Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden as part of the side that won the Under 17s World Cup in 2017. They have Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who scored the winner in the final of the Under 20s World Cup in South Korea in 2017.

Mason Mount was player of the tournament when England Under 19s won the Euros in Georgia in 2017, so they feel they've got a core of young players that have been to the latter stages of tournaments in junior football and that stands them in good stead for this final as well.

Southgate has created a unity through his image

Southgate wants the nation to get behind this football team, and he wants the average England fan to like the team again. He's talked a number of times about how he felt the English footballing nation had fallen out of love a little bit with the national team, where club loyalties were much more important to the average supporter.

He felt it needed to change and he now feels it has changed.

It's why you see the young players speaking much more openly in press conferences when they're away with England than they do when they're away with their clubs.

They seem to have a freedom and a responsibility to talk on issues that are not just football. Issues outside of the game as well when you look at Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings, who have all spoken on important issues in society.

That's what Southgate wanted: it's his image, it's his plan and it's his vision of what a modern England footballer should be. It has created this togetherness within the squad, and a togetherness with the supporters and the wider footballing public as well.

They've ridden that wave of optimism and support all the way to the final.

There'll be 60,000 fans in Wembley and the vast majority of those will be England supporters, so they'll have a huge home advantage to try to help them to their first European Championship title.

'Conspiracy theories won't distract players'

La Gazzetta dello Sport have labelled Raheem Sterling's role in winning England's decisive penalty against Denmark as the 'dive that has shaken Europe'.

Italy midfielder Marco Verratti described it as 'very generous' while Tuttosport has gone a step further with the headline 'Are you watching Ceferin?' calling for no foul play against Italy from UEFA.

Will the conspiracy theories have any impact mentally on the England players?

I don't think it will affect them at all. Something Southgate has discussed with the players is trying to ignore the noise that surrounds this tournament. He has encouraged them not to look at the media too much, and certainly not social media.

A lot of the players have told us that they've either binned social media for the tournament or aren't using it as much.

Southgate wants them focused on what's going on inside the camp and the tactical plan for the next game. He doesn't want them getting distracted by the occasion and I think that's going to be very difficult given all the noise around England being in their first major final for 55 years, but I don't think the England players are aware of the stuff coming out of Italy or the discussions with UEFA.

There's no doubt they've benefitted from home advantage and there's certainly been talk among other nations that England were awarded a generous penalty in the semi-finals.

There's a sense of injustice among other nations and the Italy squad, who don't like the chant 'Football's Coming Home'. There's an antipathy towards that but I don't feel it'll affect the England players at all. They're too professional and too focused.

They'll prepare for this game in the same fashion they've done all tournament, albeit it's the biggest game they've had in their careers.

England's plan 24 hours before kick-off...

The squad will have their final training session at St George's Park on Saturday at 11am. The first 15 minutes will be open to the cameras and we'll bring that to you live on Sky Sports News. That will be Southgate and Holland's final chance to work on the tactical plan to cope with Italy.

They'll have some lunch after that training session before heading down to their team hotel in North London in the afternoon. There, they'll rest and relax and have a team meeting later that evening after Southgate and presumably Harry Kane have done their pre-match media duties.

They'll verbally go through their plans for the final and then it'll be interesting to see what they do on matchday itself as they've got a lot of time to kill before the game. Earlier in the tournament, they went to Lord's Cricket Ground before their encounter with the Czech Republic so perhaps they'll go for a walk to stretch their legs.

Southgate will be conscious that such a big occasion will be playing on the minds of the players. Whilst the FA will want them to relax and prepare for the game mentally and in their own way quietly, they'll also try to help the players avoid becoming too bound up with the occasion and thinking of what's to come.

The Euro 2020 Final preview: Will England or Italy lift the trophy? | Selection dilemmas, tactical analysis, key players, and the view from Italy

England are preparing for their first ever Euros final - but can they beat Italy to lift the trophy? Jasper Taylor is joined by Kaveh Solhekol, Peter Smith and Oliver Yew to discuss what Gareth Southgate's side will have to do to make sure they come out on top in Sunday's showdown.

Sky Italia reporter Valentina Fass is also on the show to give us an insight into the Italian camp, the team's renaissance under Robert Mancini, and what Italian supporters think of this England side.

Plus we hear from Gary Neville on the incredible atmosphere at Wembley and how that affects players, and Jamie Redknapp on why stopping Jorginho could be the key to England's hopes.

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