There was a moment about 18 minutes into England’s victory over Croatia on Sunday when Mason Mount drove down the inside-left channel and Luka Modric, already apparently resigned to the way this was going, looked on with an infinite weariness. As it turned out, England soon hit a bump and never quite rediscovered the panache of that early spell, comfortable as their win ultimately was.
But in that moment, there was something very familiar. Hadn’t we seen something like that very recently? That first 20 minutes felt like the first 20 minutes of Chelsea’s performance away to Real Madrid in this season’s Champions League semi-final.
This was international football and so it was not quite the same. But less sophisticated as this may have been, the dynamic was similar. There was one team, thrusting, pressing aggressively, bullying a slower, weaker team. As England’s initial surge petered out – anxiety when an opening goal didn’t arrive? The temperature? A natural drop-off after an initial charge? Their opponents working them out to an extent? – Croatia did enjoy some possession, but unlike the 2018 World Cup semi-final it rarely looked penetrative.
It’s early days, but already a pattern seems to be emerging. Over the past 25 years or so, there has been enormous investment in youth development in western Europe football, whether through national schools such as Clairefontaine near Paris, Tubize on the outskirts of Brusselsor major club academies. The result has been the effective industrialisation of talent production, which has increased western Europe’s dominance.
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Never before have four World Cups in a row been won by countries from the same continent. The top seven of the Fifa world rankings comprises six western European nations and Brazil. European youth tournaments continue to be dominated by Spain and Germany, despite the notable recent efforts of Serbia and Ukraine in the Under-20 World Cup. A glance at the squads for this tournament shows the astonishing all-round depth of France, Belgium, Germany and England.
Three of the first seven games of Euro 2020 featured a western European team playing a side from further east and winning comfortably, looking far sharper: as well as England’s win over Croatia, Italy and Belgium hammered Turkey and Russia respectively. The Netherlands found it harder against Ukraine, perhaps because of their own oddly frenzied approach – few are convinced by Frank De Boer as coach – and perhaps because Andriy Shevchenko, as a former Valeriy Lobanovskyi player who spent years at Milan, has had success imposing a more modern pressing style on a squad that has benefited from the academies at Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar.
Blips happen. Generations rise and fall. External factors play a part. Germany, for all their astonishing talent, are hampered by a manager who, since winning the World Cup in 2014 (and arguably before) has struggled to get the best out of the resources available to him.
These are trends and suggestions, not absolutes. Spanish football, for instance, having done so much to pioneer the dominant style has lapsed at club level. There are specifics of mismanagement and major financial problems, but it is also natural for a period of decadence to follow superiority. Barcelona, Real Madrid, even Atlético, have all been made to look slow in recent European competition. Luis Enrique was aware of the danger of entropy even when he was Barcelona manager and is overtly attempting to impose a more rigorous style on the national team.
Even to speak of national styles is arguably anachronistic in the modern world. Nine of Turkey’s starting XI in their defeat by Italy play for western European clubs. Ideas travel and developmental threads cross. Players who grow up in one country often end up playing for another (at least 175 of the 622 players at the tournament could play for somebody else).
In Turkey’s case, it is entirely possible that a young side was simply overawed by the occasion and the tournament format perhaps encourages mid-ranking sides to play tentatively against group favourites, looking only to avoid the sort of heavy defeat that could count against them in the calculation of the best four third-placed teams. Senol Gunes, experienced as he is, has a reputation as a moderniser. Perhaps they will improve. But the early days of this tournament are in line with the broader pattern.
England’s victory followed the trend. Their best moments were the result of modern, structured football, of intelligence and aggression off the ball and cohesive movements on it – something embodied by Kalvin Phillips, who has thrived over the past three seasons after becoming a personal project for Marcelo Bielsa (six of the other England starters on Sunday, it should be noted, have been significantly moulded by Pep Guardiola or Mauricio Pochettino, both of whom readily acknowledge how Bielsa shaped their approaches; we are all Bielsista now).
The goal was a perfect example of this: Raheem Sterling having the ball high on the left, recycling it round the back four, drawing Croatia out to generate space for Phillips and then himself to burst into.
Things change. Tournaments are short. Teams can gain and lose momentum. There is still room for dogged resilience and a moment of inspiration. But already it feels it would be a major surprise were Euro 2020 not to be won by a western European pressing country, which, from an England perspective, probably means continuing with the Phillips-Mount-Declan Rice midfield and a limited role for Jack Grealish. Such are the tides of history.
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