Denmark’s defence, like all those England have come up against at the Euros, will be most wary of Raheem Sterling. The forward has been causing all manner of problems to help his country reach the semi-finals.
Sterling came into the tournament with a few questions hanging over him after not featuring as much as he would have liked for Manchester City in the second half of the season. He has looked very hungry from the first whistle, motivated by his desire to further prove himself as a player for the big occasion. When someone doubts you, it drives you to better yourself because footballers need to challenge themselves constantly to get the best out of themselves. Everyone knows how good Sterling can be and it is fantastic to see him flourishing.
In a team that has witnessed a lot of rotation during the tournament, Sterling and Harry Kane have been mainstays in the starting lineup. It is no surprise these two are selected regardless of the situation because Gareth Southgate has a lot of faith in them. Sterling knows the manager trusts him and that will give him confidence whenever he joins England. The change of scenery and atmosphere can be a great help for a player who may be frustrated – it can liberate them on the pitch and Sterling obviously feels at home within the England setup.
In each game Sterling’s sharpness, speed and skill have brought a spark to the team. The upside to his not being an automatic selection at City is that he seems fresher than many players, which is not what an opposition defender wants.
When Kane was not scoring in the group stage he was still providing for the team and Southgate did not need to worry in the knowledge Kane would come good at some point in the tournament and he had a firing Sterling who scored the goals sent England into the knockout stages.
Anyone with Sterling’s speed is going to concern defenders but he uses it to maximum effect by running in behind, dribbling at people and getting in the positions to score. There is also the other side of his game many do not see: Sterling’s workrate has been incredible and he makes a lot of unselfish runs to drag defences around, often cutting inside to give space on the overlap, which has benefited the full-backs.
Going the other way, Denmark attack a lot down their right and Sterling’s output could be crucial to stop them doing so: the best form of defence could be England’s attack on that side with Sterling.
Denmark are most vulnerable down the flanks, which will work in his favour. Wales caused them problems in the early stages of their last-16 game thanks to fine wing play and Denmark had to change their shape to deal with it.
Sterling’s speed, skill and movement will be key to get beyond the defence and drag England forward. Those who can dribble at defenders and beat men in one-on-one situations could decide the game, so Bukayo Saka would be a good option to return. I think Southgate will revert to the back three that featured against Germany and try to play on the front foot.
The depth in the squad has helped take England this far, with players selected depending on the circumstance. It is generally the younger players who have come in to perform a specific role as part of Southgate’s meticulous plans. Saka and Jadon Sancho will have been more comfortable coming into a side with Sterling in form and Kane alongside them, alleviating some of the pressure.
It is not just on the pitch where the senior players have helped youngsters settle; they have limited their exposure off it too. Sterling and Kane have tournament experience, whereas Saka, Mason Mount and Phil Foden are enjoying this adventure for the first time. There is a core group of leaders and they are stepping up to ensure the group stays focused on the task ahead.
The older players know the pain of losing a semi-final despite putting in a lot of hard work and they will not want that feeling again. The team are still hurting from defeat by Croatia at the 2018 World Cup – you can hear it in their interviews. They have expectations of each other and themselves as they push towards the final.
In women’s football we’ve been dominated heavily by the US, who can be intimidating due to their uber-confidence in their ability to win. This England group has the same attitude – there is a swagger that is good to hear and see and they are backing it up with their performances. They are not afraid to say: ‘We are in it to win it.’ We’re not used to hearing that from England and with Sterling leading the charge, we should have every confidence that they can.