Southgate's excuse for putting on Sancho and Rashford so late reeked of fear
"That's always the risk that you run."
Risks. Gambles. Gareth Southgate had his fill.
England had a golden opportunity to clinch ever-lasting glory at Euro 2020 but the occasion caught up with them. Not just at the penalty shoot-out. Long before that.
Watching the first 20 minutes of the final, on Sunday, it looked as though England could put the game to bed by half-time. Southgate had gone with a fluid enough 3-4-3 formation with Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier as wing-backs. It would be a move that would later harm England's cause but, for that first stretch of the game, it was working beautifully.
Southgate must have felt incredible when Trippier, his big selection call, picked out Luke Shaw at the back post for the opener. England were playing at pace and tearing into the Italians. Roberto Mancini's side were struggling to string any decent phases together.
That Italy made it to the break only 1-0 down will have given Mancini something to cling to. He made adjustments and send his side out with a renewed purpose. Immobile and Barella were given 10 more minutes to bang on the door but Mancini had seen enough - on came Domenicio Berardi and Bryan Cristante.
England were now sitting back. Shaw and Trippier were no longer bombing forward. England had slipped into a 5-4-1 and Harry Kane, their sole striker, kept jogging back to the half-way line to get on the ball. Kane did not have a single touch in the opposition box for the entire game.
Watching the game on RTÉ, Ronnie Whelan could sense England were asking for trouble. Jordan Pickford made one diving save as Italy twigged England regressing into themselves. They were shelling up. Southgate watched on but did not make a change.
The equaliser arrived on 66 minutes from Leonardo Bonucci and it finally sparked movement on the England bench. On came Bukayo Saka, for Trippier. Jordan Henderson replaced Declan Rice, soon after.
Saka's skinning of the otherwise excellent Giorgio Chiellini, on 96 minutes, shows you what England could have done to this Italian defence had they been bold enough with their tactics and substitutions.
Phil Foden was unavailable for selection, but Southgate had the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, Jude Bellingham and Saka on the bench.
By getting to the final and making big calls along the way, Southgate gained a heap of credit. His final XI would not have been to everyone's liking, but it worked... to a point. Southgate's paralysis in changing personnel in the second half and going after the Italians translated to his team, to England's detriment.
Saka running at Chiellini should have told Southgate what he needed to do. Go after the Italians.
He had three substitutions left, for extra time, and was painfully slow in using them. Grealish arrived after 99 minutes and caused Italy problems from the get-go. Rashford was primed to come on for the final 15 minutes but he, and Sancho, arrived on with only 90 seconds (plus injury time) left.
Asked about the possibility that Rashford and Sancho could both have been 'cold' for their shoot-out penalties, which they both missed. Southgate's answer was telling:
"That's always the risk that you run. But they've been, by far, the best [penalty takers] in the lead-in.
"To get all those attacking players on, you have to do it late. So, it was a gamble, but if we had gambled earlier, we maybe lose the game in extra time anyway."
My take on that would be, SO WHAT? Go for it in extra time. Why willingly wheeze through the last 15 or 20 minutes of extra time when there was a game there to be WON?
The Italians would have loved nothing better than taking it to penalties and backing Gianluigi Donnarumma - their 6-foot-5 penalty-saving demon - to get them over the line. It had worked against Spain. Italy were on the ropes and waiting for the bell.
Instead of going for the kill, Southgate was more concerned with 'What if we lose?' Imagine the heave England would have got from Sancho and Rashford, and the home fans, had they come on with time to make a difference as players, instead of penalty takers.
Instead, Rashford played out the game at right-back.
The legendary Ajax, Barcelona and Dutch star Johan Cruyff once reflected on the game he so often lit up, and his core philosophy on it.
"We play," he said, "to fight the fear of losing."
Be bold and take all that pressure on. Embrace it and thrive on it, as the alternative is being paralysed by fear.
At the end of it all, as Italy celebrated on the Wembley pitch and Bonucci told the world 'It's coming to Rome', Southgate fronted up. In fairness to him, his leadership of this squad of players has been brilliant. He has taken as much of the spotlight off them and invited the flak to fall on his shoulders.
"I chose the guys to take the kicks. I told the players that nobody is on their own in that situation. We win and lose together as a team. They have been tight throughout and that’s how it needs to stay. It is my decision to give him [Saka] that penalty. That is totally my responsibility. It is not him or Marcus or Jadon. We worked through them in training. That is the order we came to.
“What they have to know is none of them are on their own. We win and lose as a team. Penalties are my call. We worked in training. It’s not down to the players. Tonight it hasn’t gone for us. We know they were the best takers we had left on the pitch. Of course it’s going to be heartbreaking for the boys but they are not to blame for that."
Southgate maintained his nobility all tournament. He will get another chance at the World Cup, late in 2022.
It should not be the penalty misses he rues most, though. It should be the realisation that fear got to him in the end.
The fear of losing won out.