Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford on Thursday insisted England’s young squad would not feel the pressure of previous defeats by Germany, while Gareth Southgate has said his new generation of players are not weighed down by the “baggage of failure”.
But, as the saying goes, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it and Southgate will know that many of England’s previous big-tournament failures have come down to a basic inability to look after the ball.
In the World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia three years ago, Henderson toiled in a one-man midfield, as England repeatedly squandered possession to their opponents’ more technical middle-men before cracking in extra-time.
Southgate’s side earned a measure of a revenge over the same opponents in their opening game of Euro 2020 but there were still periods where Croatia looked calmer and more purposeful with the ball, and we will discover the true extent of England’s progress at Wembley on Tuesday.
Germany were unconvincing en route to the last-16 but they still boast the best in the business at looking after possession.
No player at Euro 2020 has completed more passes than Toni Kroos, with 288, comfortably more than England’s midfield two of Declan Rice (135) and Kalvin Phillips (121) managed combined (256) in the group stage.
Henderson witnessed first hand the damage Kroos can do in Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final first leg defeat by Real Madrid in April, when the German playmaker was given too much space and time to pick holes in the visitors’ defence. Keeping the ball — and thereby keeping it away from Kroos — will be crucial to England’s hopes of writing new history on Tuesday evening.
“It’s extremely important to keep it, especially against Germany,” Henderson said on Thursday. “They have got very good technical players who can dominate games with the ball, so you need to be really solid without the ball.
“Players like Kroos that can hurt you, as we have seen plenty of times in the past. He’s a world-class player who can really hurt you with time and space, so we need to make sure that without the ball we are really, really solid.
“When we get it, we need to be calm and composed but also positive with our play, getting the ball forward and trying to create as many chances as we can.”
Henderson missed Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat in Madrid with the groin injury that has limited his participation in the tournament and the Reds would surely have offered a better response to Kroos’s brilliance withhim in midfield.
His introduction as a half-time substitute against the Czech Republic helped England to strangle the life out of the game and Southgate will surely want to start the experienced 31-year-old on such a big occasion, ahead of one of Rice and Phillips, who are both big-tournament debutants.
“We’ve got quite a young squad but that can be a positive thing,” Henderson said.“A lot of these lads just go out and enjoy the game, play with no fear. And that’s what they need to do again on Tuesday.
“As an experienced player I can help with that and make sure we’re in the right frame of mind going into the game and make sure training’s at the level it needs to be over the next few days to prepare for that one.”
As it stands, West Ham’s Rice looks like most likely to be replaced, having made way against the Czechs, reflecting Phillips’s surprising and seamless emergence as one of Southgate’s most trusted players.
The Leeds midfielder was England’s standout performer in the win over Croatia before taking a more understated role against Scotland and the Czech Republic, and his steady presence is important to both England’s transition from back to front and in disrupting their opponents’ rhythm.
Even without Mason Mount, who will not be free from isolation until the morning of the last-16 clash, England’s new generation of players feel more equipped to overcome their historic possession problem.
Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden, who could return to the XI next week, are integral parts of one of the Premier League’s great passing teams, while Harry Kane and Jack Grealish are both technically gifted players.
Southgate is also considering a switch to a back-three, which would allow him to add an extra defender in Kieran Trippier or Reece James to help England build patiently from the back.
Henderson also believes England are mentally stronger than previous generations, which will stand them in good stead for the knockout stages.
“The mentality has changed over the last few years in a positive way with what we’ve experienced as a team and maybe we can use that on Tuesday and going forward for however many years,” he said.
“We have to keep improving that because it is a big part of the game.”