Gareth Southgate was the perfect man to educate England on the importance of penalties. Twenty-two years ago, he missed one that he wasn’t ready to take, costing the Three Lions a place in the final of the 1996 European Championship. It was just the second penalty he had ever taken in his career.
He volunteered to take the sixth spot-kick against Germany because no one else would step forward. He certainly didn’t expect the shootout to go that far. The lack of preparation – and the overbearing anxiety – doomed Southgate and England from the start.
The 47-year-old harnessed the anguish – which he said he’ll carry forever – and turned it into a teaching tool. He gave his players the wherewithal to handle the moment, and when it finally arrived Tuesday against Colombia, everyone knew what to do. Every member of Southgate’s squad – including the goalkeepers – had practiced penalties in training, so unlike manager Terry Venables in ’96, Southgate wasn’t left scrambling for takers. There were no last-minute decisions made here in Moscow.
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It was that calmness and confidence that helped England banish ghosts of tournaments past and win on penalties for the first time at a World Cup. Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Kieran Trippier, and Eric Dier all hit the back of the net, and Jordan Pickford made a spectacular reaction save on Carlos Bacca to book a trip to the quarter-finals.
Kane is the poster boy of England’s newfound mentality, dispatching three other penalties in regular time at the 2018 World Cup. He has hit it hard into the top corner and down the middle, showing variety and power from the spot. Even a player like Rashford, who has played a bit-part role so far in Russia, showed the poise to smash the ball with accuracy. As Southgate’s fourth substitute in extra time, Rashford was clearly brought in with penalties in mind. The plan was in motion.
Even when it didn’t go according to plan, Southgate was convinced. Jordan Henderson’s miss wouldn’t reaffirm all of England’s doubts and trigger the same old headlines back home. It instead provided an opportunity for Pickford to show his own qualifications.
The 24-year-old had studied every one of Colombia’s penalty takers in advance of the round of 16 and knew which side each of his opponents favoured. It was with that knowledge, and his acrobatics and agility, that he made the crucial stop.
It says everything that England’s players entered the shootout so assured of themselves.
“I’ve seen enough shootouts where the first one that’s missed isn’t the key one and believed our goalkeeper would save one,” Southgate told reporters after the win. “The technique and execution of the players was brilliant. I have to give a lot of credit to such a big support team who’ve done so much work in that area.”
That process began by recognizing penalties as more than just lotteries, that they require more skill than luck. Southgate and his staff put strategies in place as early as March, and identified little details that could help England conquer its demons. It was determined that England had rushed through previous penalty shootouts, so Southgate and the FA encouraged the players to take a little more time to compose themselves. More importantly, Southgate told his players to own the process and avoid making decisions in the spur of the moment.
In the end, England turned a fear of penalties into respect. Nothing was left to chance, and its players could finally reel off in celebration.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)