For much of Euro 2020, it felt as if destiny was on England’s side. Ghosts of the past were banished as a country embraced its national team like never before in recent times.
But destiny doesn’t count for much out on the pitch and Gareth Southgate and his players were made to rue a missed opportunity. And make no mistake - the opportunity was there.
This was a final that swung one way and then the other, but England didn’t make the most of the time the pendulum was in their favour. An early goal should have been their cue to press home the early advantage, but in the end Southgate’s inherent conservatism caught up with him.
It might have carried England to the final, but it couldn’t take them any further.
Southgate’s switch to a back three initially looked to have been made with the system’s defensive strengths in mind.
While Italy don’t use wing-backs, their full-backs are pushed so high up the pitch that they are used as a key attacking outlet. The tactical shift made by Southgate was in recognition of this.
However, it took just two minutes - 1 minute and 57 seconds, to be exact - for the attacking benefits of England’s system to become apparent with Luke Shaw overloading the Italian defence which just didn’t have the bodies to account for the Manchester United full-back and Kieran Trippier (who made two accurate crosses in the first 10 minutes) bursting into the final third.
Italy appeared unprepared for England’s approach.
With the Three Lions defending from the front, they struggled to feed the ball into their midfield. Trippier was deployed so high on the right wing that Emerson Palmieri wasn’t allowed to provide any forward thrust.
Mancini might have expected Nicolo Barella, Jorginho and Marco Verratti to control the contest in the centre, but Harry Kane’s willingness to drop deep gave England a foothold.
Without any width, the limitations of Italy’s 4-3-3 formation were exposed. While the Azzurri did a better job of getting a foot on the ball for the final 10 minutes of the first half, this was largely down to England dropping slightly deeper.
There was so no way for Italy to get in behind with their only real opportunity coming from a Federico Chiesa dribble - he made three dribbles in 85 minutes.
For 55 minutes, Italy offered next to nothing in transition.
It was therefore unsurprising to see Mancini acknowledge this by introducing Domenico Berardi for Ciro Immobile to provide more width and pace beyond the last man. This saw Lorenzo Insigne moved into a central position, although his primary purpose was to drop deep and create the space for Berardi and Chiesa to spin behind him.
Verratti took it upon himself to disrupt the connection between Trippier and Kyle Walker on the England right wing in the second half with Mason Mount increasingly stretched by the defensive duties he was being asked to perform. Giovanni Di Lorenzo used this to ghost away from the Chelsea midfielder down the right - no Italian player made more crosses (4) than him.
England’s second half approach was about controlling the space rather than the ball, but this conceded too much territorial advantage to Italy.
With the opposition camped on the edge of the box, it only took one pass or cross to fall kindly for an Italian player, which is how Leonardo Bonucci was presented with the chance to equalise.
Southgate’s alterations from the semi-final win over Denmark might have caught Mancini by surprise, but the changes he and his players made during the match itself saw Italy regain control.
The introduction of Berardi in particular changed the dynamic as Chiesa and Insigne (who made more shots than anyone else on the pitch - five) were freed up. With England’s defence now occupied, and pushed closer to their own goal, by the pair, Italy’s midfield took over and England found themselves pinned back.
Bryan Cristante also provided excellent coverage off the bench, with the Roma midfielder pressing high on England to prevent Kalvin Phillips from taking the ball into feet out of the defence, breaking up his partnership with Declan Rice in the centre of the pitch which had proved so effective for much of the first half.
At this point, Southgate surely felt the temptation to introduce a playmaker like Jack Grealish to find some creativity, but no change was made during normal time.
This potentially reflected Southgate’s concern that the introduction of another attack-minded player would leave England with another isolated forward with no dependable supply line into them.
However, by throwing on Grealish for Mount in extra time the Italy midfield was forced deeper which in turn opened up space for Phillips in his deep-lying role.
This saw England enjoy their best period of the match since the opening 20 minutes, yet Southgate only introduced Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho right at the end of extra time.
By the time the first penalty in the shootout had been taken, England had already spurned any advantage they had. Southgate responded to Italy’s shift in focus too late.
While the round-of-16 win over Germany served as vindication for the 50-year-old’s conservative approach, it required a bold change in Grealish coming off the bench with 20 minutes left to make the difference.
This was a lesson Southgate appeared to forget as he allowed the final to drift into a shootout, and into Italy’s hands.
This could, and perhaps should, have been the conclusion of this England team’s story, but more must be written for the right ending, as far as Southgate and his players are concerned, to be reached.