Gareth Southgate insists Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips will not be fazed about going up against Italy’s much-lauded midfield, pointing out they coped well despite their relative inexperience against two modern greats in Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
Italy have enjoyed almost universal acclaim for their performances at Euro 2020, with their run to Sunday’s final seeing them extend their unbeaten run to 33 matches, a national record.
A lot of the praise has been centred around their midfield trio of Nicolo Barella, Jorginho and Marco Verratti, the latter two in particular.
Jorginho carries out an important function as their deep-lying playmaker, and his influence is highlighted by the fact he has completed more passes (390) and had more touches of the ball (503) than any of his team-mates, while his 38 instances of regaining possession and instigating passing sequences is 10 more than anyone else in the tournament.
As for Verratti, the Paris Saint-Germain star’s 12 key passes is bettered by only Kevin De Bruyne and he leads the way in terms of involvements in open-play sequences that end in a shot, averaging 9.2 every 90 minutes (players with at least 165 mins played), which paints a picture of not only great creativity but also significant impact generally in Italy’s build-up play.
Yet Italy struggled in that area against Spain and were subsequently overrun at times, their 0.8 xG to La Roja’s 1.5 proof they were somewhat fortunate to get past Luis Enrique’s side via a penalty shoot-out.
As such, Spain essentially highlighted that to dull Italy’s strengths they need to win the midfield battle, and Southgate feels his players in that area are up to the challenge.
“I think when you’re coaching a team, you watch everything and you have to decide the most important information for players, not flood them with too much, adapt the game to our strengths and highlight potential weaknesses,” Southgate told reporters ahead of England’s first major final in 55 years.
“Of course there are fantastic players all through the Italy team, they’ve a good tactical plan, an experienced coach and an amazing record over last 30 games or so, we are very aware of that.
“But players like our two midfielders [Rice and Phillips], they’ve played beyond their experience in this tournament and they’ve already played against Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, so they’ve had to adapt to these midfield players with great European experience and they’ve done that brilliantly.
“We’re different, we have our own strengths, own style of play, which is geared towards the strengths of our players.
“That’s the beauty of football, every team has different strengths, we’ve tried to play to ours and adapt to our strengths and we need to do the same [on Sunday].”
Another Italian double act that has been showered with praise is centre-back pairing Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, whose combined 33 European Championship appearances is four more than England’s entire back five that started the semi-final against Denmark.
While they may not possess the same ball-carrying ease as England’s Harry Maguire and John Stones, Chiellini remains a formidable scrapper even at the age of 36, with his 71.4 duels success bettered by only six defenders (involved in 10 or more duels). And Bonucci continues to read the game well, his haul of 12 interceptions being the most of all defenders at Euro 2020.
Together, there is not much they do not possess, and Harry Kane is relishing the chance to go up against them.
“They’re two amazing defenders with great experience over their careers of big matches,” Kane said.
“I’ve been fortunate to play against them before, and as a striker I want to play against the best and they’re definitely up there.”
Kane himself has had an intriguing tournament given he was widely criticised for a slow start that saw him fail to score until the knockout phase, yet he now has four heading into the final.
It is a curious change from his performance at the 2018 World Cup, when he scored five in the group and only one in the knockouts, and he suggested that may be by design.
“Obviously don’t get me wrong, I’d have loved to have scored three or four in the group and got off to fantastic start and gone from there, but it was more about the energy,” he said.
“I felt in the World Cup, it was such an amazing start, scoring in the last minute against Tunisia, a lot of energy after that game was used in terms of the emotion, and then against Panama it was the same, because it was an amazing game and I got a hat-trick.
“Again, there’s a lot of talk and mental energy [expended] – Colombia was the same. Not just physically but mentally I felt I just lost a little towards the latter stages, so going into this one with a bit more experience it’s about not getting too carried away, whether I score or not.
“Thankfully it’s worked out pretty well, but I guess that’s part of the learning curve and gaining that experience, hopefully I’ve enough left to finish the job.”