England football celebrates quarter final win over Switzerland

England and penalties: A complicated history

Saturday was a monumental day for the England Team, beating Switzerland with a perfect set of five penalties to advance to the semi-finals of the Euros tonight against the Netherlands. Utterly cool penalties from Palmer and Bellingham set the tone early, as Saka provided a perfectly eloquent rebuke of critics back in 2021. Through to Toney’s nonchalance, taking a single step and never averting his gaze from the Swiss goalkeeper, with Trent Alexander-Arnold riffling the ball into the back of the net to book England’s place in the semi-final. 

Penalties have long been a macabre affair for England, no more so than the heartbreak of the Euro 2020 final. Despite Pickford’s saves against Andrea Belotti and Jorginho, misses from Rashford, Sancho and Saka saw Italy lift the trophy at Wembley. The fallout was repugnant and noisome, bringing to the foreground the most egregious elements of football culture. The three who missed were all subject to intense racial abuse – only Saka remains in the England squad, and many would have feared a banal repeat as he stepped up to the spot. 

Yet, Saka rose to the occasion with confidence and composure,  exorcising the demons of 2021. He commented after the game: “For me, it is something I embrace- you can fail once and you have a choice if you are going to put yourself in that position again. I believed in myself and when the ball hit the net I was a very happy man”. 

Additionally he rescued Enlgand from the abyss with his equaliser, forcing extra-time and setting the scene for his lustration. The Arsenal winger was already a national favourite, but the heroism and courage he displayed in Dusseldorf will surely cement his place as a national icon.

The approach of the entire squad towards the penalty shoot stood in stark contrast from 2021. Rather than being viewed as a lottery, a game of luck rather than skill, they have been cast as a phase of play which, through extensive preparation and meticulous planning, can be mastered. 

This new ethos was embodied by Pickford’s water bottle against Switzerland, which featured instructions for each Swiss penalty taker, including to ‘dive left’ for Manuel Akanji- he followed this instruction and the save yielded the difference. The  preparation process has been highly secretive, as three players were shut down by staff mid-interview when questioned on  the matter.

A two hour prosaic of vapidity before catching out opponents sleeping in penalties.

Yet, the proof is in the pudding. Under Southgate, who has a ghostly history with penalties as a player, England have won three of their previous four penalty shoot-outs. Previously, England had only won one out of seven penalty shootouts at major tournaments. From 1990 to 2012, successive England goalkeepers have only managed to save a meagre two of thirty six penalties faced, whereas Pickford has already doubled this tally, saving four out of fourteen penalties.

However, Southgate failed to truly provide a solution to his problems, and still faces many questions. In spite of this, the victory was redemption for 2021, and the penalty curse that has long weighed heavy on the national conscience appears to have (touch wood) vanished. Perhaps Southgate has revolutionised knock-out football – a two hour prosaic of vapidity before catching out opponents sleeping in penalties.