What We’ve Learned From England’s Start to EURO 2024

England sits atop group C through their first two EURO 2024 matches. However, it’s been far from smooth sailing for the Three Lions, who are under constant pressure from the media and fans eager for the team’s first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup. 

EURO 2024 has been a tournament filled with intrigue and has given us more than a few talking points through its first week. We’ve seen upsets, wonder goals, tactical masterclasses, and everything in between; but a common theme has been the underperformance of some tournament favorites.

Today the focus is on England, often the most talked about team for better or for worse, and home to players who reside exclusively under the microscope of the football world.

After two games played, the Three Lions sit atop group C with 4 points, but it has by no means been smooth sailing. It looks to be a team regressing rather than improving, and the seemingly interminable swirl of questions around manager Gareth Southgate continue to churn.

We’ll examine both the on-field performance and the nature of the English media’s coverage of their team.

Underwhelming Lions

The biggest takeaways from the performance on the pitch surrounded the wide attacking players. Bukayo Saka’s performance against Serbia garnered deserved plaudits and also showed the imbalance that persists in England’s attack.

Phil Foden certainly deserves his spot in the team. The Manchester City attacker is fresh off a Premier League Player of the Year award and is one of the best players in the world at his position. Somehow though, his forays on the left side for the national team are painfully lackluster, and we only see his quality sparkle when he drifts into the center of the pitch; a position occupied by Jude Bellingham.

England also continues their struggle to strike balance in midfield, a theme that has been present since the early 2000s. The insistence on playing Trent Alexander-Arnold as a midfielder instead of his favored right-back position provides more cons than pros and sees Bellingham drop much deeper than a player with his attacking prowess would like.

Alexander-Arnold’s qualities on the ball are fantastic, but he is a player with a notorious lack of defensive awareness and placing him in the belly of the beast is asking for trouble against sides with more aggressive counter-pressing styles or more physical prowess in midfield.

Denmark and Serbia are far from pushovers, but England’s struggles against both sides beg the question if they can truly stand toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the world and come out on top.

The Press Coverage

england euro 2024

The English media has long been a hot topic in football, with some of their biggest publications often guilty of targeting minority players in ways that are unfair and over the top. At the EURO 2024 tournament, this hasn’t yet been the case, but we’ve got loads of precedent for this recently.

Less than three years ago at the last European Championships, we saw the wave of abuse unleashed on Saka, Marcus Rashford, and Jadon Sancho for their missed penalties in the shootout of the final. It felt like the brunt of the blame came down on these three players, and things soured rapidly when many used the guise of criticism to racially abuse the young Lions.

On the eve of the EURO 2024, we saw similar scapegoating after England’s 1-0 loss against Iceland. Nigh on every major newspaper had Saka plastered on the front page, parading him as the face of defeat when the forward didn’t even see a full half-hour on the pitch.

There was a huge reaction online to chastise the media coverage of the Iceland game, with several big names chiming in to give their view on the situation.

While there was no unwarranted criticism of Saka after his good showing against Serbia, the issue was highlighted once again. Foden’s performance was noticeably under his high standards, with him providing worryingly little attacking thrust but still playing the full 90 minutes.

To be clear, I’m not calling for the media to slate Foden after one bad performance, but it’s not hard to see the reason why he was protected while others consistently aren’t.

Less than a month ago we saw Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag speak on 19-year-old midfielder Kobbie Mainoo to the media after the club’s FA Cup win.

“I think we have to keep it calm, you are very good here in England to push players and managers very high, and then you hammer them after one or two bad performances,” ten Hag told the BBC. “I think we need to keep it very calm.”

During the Iceland game’s coverage, the Telegraph put a tweet out aimed at Mainoo and it sparked heavy backlash from fans who thought it made him out to be the reason England conceded when there were several other factors also at play.

There remains much work to do if the English press are to do away with their habitual unfair treatment of Black players.

How Far Can England Go?

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The talent is absolutely undeniable. The Three Lions have arguably the strongest squad on paper of any team in the tournament, but as the old adage goes, the game isn’t played on paper.

The hosts Germany have thrown down the gauntlet in frightening fashion. Their opening two games have displayed both the talent of the players and the brilliance of manager Julian Nagelsmann. Spain opened their campaign with a 3-0 demolition of a very good Croatia side and firmly placed themselves in the conversation for potential winners as well.

Pretty much every other big name either underperformed, in the case of Portugal and France, or dropped the ball completely in the case of Belgium.

England’s 1-1 draw against Denmark showed more flaws than improvements, and their group stage showing tells the tale of a team that will look to get their hands dirty and grind out results if need be. While this is a vital trait to have, perhaps a team with their quality should look to kick on and kill games off rather than curl into their shell after scoring.

The fact remains that they possess bonafide match winners littered through their frontline and you can see why they are backed by so many. English fans will hope that the midfield imbalance and lack of dynamism on their left side does not come back to bite them against better opposition in the knockout stage.

The biggest issue, however, is in the dugout, with a manager who seems tactically out of his depth despite the exceptional quality at his disposal. Southgate’s routine misuse of his stars and failure to put players in their best positions to succeed continues to hinder England’s potential.

Whether they win or lose there will always be a degree of overreaction when it comes to the English national team, so perhaps the beginning of the EURO 2024 tournament hasn’t taught us anything new, but instead has refreshed our memory. Football is a game where things can flip very quickly, and the past few weeks are a reminder of how fast perception can change, and how fickle fans and media personnel alike can be.

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