England's Harry Kane reacts after Denmark's Morten Hjulmand scores. Alamy Stock Photo
talking point

Can England win the Euros by playing like Martin O'Neill's Ireland?

Gareth Southgate’s men flattered to deceive against Denmark today.

BEFORE Euro 2024 began, England were the favourite of most bookmakers to triumph.

It’s hard to remember a previous example of when the most hotly-tipped team to win a major tournament looked so technically limited.

The irony is that today’s 1-1 draw with Denmark all but assures the Three Lions’ place in the knockout stages, but the downcast mood and fans booing at full-time told a different story. 

The frequent joke about Martin O’Neill’s Ireland was that they scored “too early”.

Many times over the years, particularly under O’Neill, Ireland went ahead in games and tried to batten down the hatches, consequently always getting overrun by technically superior teams like Georgia.

It happened during the nadir of O’Neill’s Ireland reign, a 5-1 defeat by Denmark when a Shane Duffy goal after six minutes had given his side false hope.

England were not quite as bad as the Boys in Green that night, but with better players, they have been deploying a similar game plan for years.

It was true of their 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat against Croatia when Kieran Trippier’s free-kick put them ahead after five minutes only to lose 2-1.

It was also the case in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley, when Luke Shaw scored after two minutes only for the Italians to dominate for much of the remaining contest before winning on penalties.

And it was evident against Serbia the other night when Gareth Southgate’s side more or less shut up shop after Jude Bellingham’s 13th-minute opener.

And there was another repeat showing this afternoon.

The biggest difference between the Serbia and Denmark games was the latter played with more self-belief.

In the first 13 minutes especially, you got the sense the Serbs had bought into the England hype and lacked any real conviction in attack, struggling to trouble their defence despite dominating the play.

Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic acknowledged as much afterwards.

“Against England, we started playing with too much respect for them, like they came from another planet,” he said.

“It should not be like that. We’ve played better against them later in the match and that’s how we’ll play against Slovenia.”

Serbia arguably deserved a draw on the balance of play, and similarly today, Denmark could easily have turned a point into three.

However, Kasper Hjulmand’s side — who looked considerably more threatening with seven shots on target to four — seemed happy enough with the result. Would they have substituted Christian Eriksen and goalscorer Morten Hjulmand with just over 10 minutes remaining in a knockout game?

They were a technically superior, better-organised team and ended the game much stronger.

Gareth Southgate’s men, by contrast, looked bereft of ideas and were ultimately reduced to constantly knocking hopeful long balls up the pitch — a sure sign that a team has lost faith in its game plan assuming there was a clear one to begin with.

Declan Rice might have been forgiven for feeling like he was back playing for O’Neill’s Ireland, for whom he won three caps in 2018 (a 1-0 loss to Turkey in the game directly after the Denmark mauling, a 2-0 defeat by France and a 2-1 win over USA).

Rice’s former teammate James McClean received plenty of flak online for claiming the Arsenal star is overrated and not world-class.

“I don’t think he gets in the Man City side ahead of Rodri,” the ex-Ireland international added. “I know Toni Kross is now retiring, but Toni Kroos is world-class to me. He dictates the game, Rodri dictates the game, I don’t think Declan Rice does that.”

The comments were harsh but there is some truth to them.

Rice is brilliant at many aspects of the game. Physically, there are few superior players at the elite level. But technically, he is somewhat limited, struggles on the half-turn, and is usually happy to play the ball backwards or sideways — these flaws tend to be especially notable at major tournaments, where the football is much slower and more methodical compared with the Premier League.

At Arsenal, he plays alongside Jorginho and Martin Odegaard, two players who can compensate for Rice’s deficiencies.

Southgate was hoping Trent Alexander Arnold could do the same for England.

Yet the Liverpool star has been substituted relatively early in both group games for the more industrious Conor Gallagher, and it appears this experiment has failed.

The midfield remained England’s biggest problem for much of the 90 minutes, so Southgate’s bold decision to take off his attacking trio of Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden felt irrelevant.

It was not addressing the main issue, which continued to impact the side, as Ollie Watkins, Jarrod Bowen and Eberechi Eze were similarly isolated owing to the midfield’s inability to knit the play together with the likes of Eriksen, Hjulmand and the excellent Pierre-Emile Højbjerg winning the battle in that area of the pitch.

However, England should not be written off based on today’s game.

Interestingly, their defence, which some critics cited as their biggest weakness going into the tournament, has been the most impressive aspect of the opening two games.

And competency in this position is invariably what wins teams tournaments — Spain were victorious in all their knockout games 1-0 at the 2010 World Cup and France kept clean sheets at four out of seven matches on their way to glory in 2018.

Yet at the moment, the relatively solid-looking backline coupled with a couple of individual players capable of producing a moment of magic out of nothing is all Southgate is relying on.

Their midfield has not been good enough for this level and those people who bought into the hype and backed England to end 58 years of hurt surely are having second thoughts now.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel