Euro 2020 home nations action: Sterling has justified England boss Southgate’s trust

The groups wrap up with the Man City star proving his worth, Scotland bowing out but with hope for the future and keeper heroics for Wales against Italy, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys. 

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Two goals scored. No goals conceded. England finished top of Group D but this tournament has very much been a handbrake-on approach. Only Turkey, Finland and Scotland scored less than them but then only Italy were able to match their three clean sheets. 

Both goals have come from an unexpected goalscorer. Given all the focus on England’s plethora of young attacking talent, Raheem Sterling represents the past. This is after all his fourth international tournament, although he is only 26 years old. 

His season at Manchester City had been fairly underwhelming, scoring only half the goals he managed the season before. There is certainly an impression that Pep Guardiola no longer sees him as an essential starter in his Premier League-winning squad, and rumblings that all is not well behind the scenes.

Yet despite that, Sterling still started an average number of games as compared to his previous seasons under Guardiola, and the decision to pick him in the Champions League final was hardly the mark of a player left out in the cold. 

Still, there was a perception that Gareth Southgate’s decision to start him were a result of loyalty – something we are told the England manager places great value on – as opposed to ability. 

With the group stages finished though, Sterling’s two goals – his first and second at an international tournament – are England’s two goals.

Despite Southgate’s move away from the 3-5-2 that England played throughout the 2018 World Cup, Sterling has been used positionally in a very similar way even within the 4-2-3-1 that has been preferred for the majority of the Euros. Whilst ostensibly starting on the left, he has looked to drift into pockets of space centrally with whoever is in the 10 role (Mason Mount in the first two matches and Jack Grealish against the Czech Republic) moving into that vacated left-hand space. 

The problem in the first two games was that this movement-focused approach left England without much penetration, particularly as Southgate’s full-backs had been particularly cautious. Against the Czech Republic, however, the inclusion of Bukayo Saka and Grealish took the burden off Sterling. No one had more progressive carries than Grealish in the Premier League last season and both players were delighted to pick up the ball and run with it. Sterling was then free to make runs and find gaps rather than focus on ball progression. This was reflected in his carry numbers dropping from 38 and 36 carries against Croatia and Scotland, respectively, to just 21 against the Czech Republic.

The interchange between the No 10 and Sterling has been one of the most positive elements of England’s dour attacking play. With Mount unlikely to start in the Round of 16 game against Germany, there is a high possibility Grealish will get another start there. His inclusion seems to be bringing out the very best in Sterling, and if Southgate was starting Sterling based off of loyalty, he has certainly been rewarded. 

Scotland bow out but there is more to build on

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As frustrating as it was for Scottish fans, there is no embarrassment to being knocked out of a tournament by the outside of Luka Modric’s right foot. Modric’s exquisite goal saw Scotland ultimately well beaten but they did at least get a goal to cheer. Steve Clarke’s side have shown themselves to be well-organised and tenacious and there is plenty to build on. With Che Adams only just getting started in international football, it certainly does not feel like we will have to wait as long for Scotland to get to their next major tournament.

Wales hold on against Italy with Danny Ward once again shining

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Wales managed to only concede one goal against Italy despite playing over 30 minutes with 10 men after Ethan Ampadu was sent off. No mean feat against a side who had scored six goals in their previous two matches. Wales have had a lot to thank Danny Ward for so far in this tournament. The back-up Leicester goalkeeper who made just five appearances this season is the third best goalkeeper at the tournament in terms of post shot expected goals minus goals conceded according to FBRef. It is a tiny sample size but there is no doubt that Ward has stepped up to the mark when it comes to helping Wales advance in the tournament. 

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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