Talk about football coming home, and then one night in Rome. England were strong. They had grown. They are semi-finalists at Euro 2020 and they look like potential winners too, if this – the most efficient, commanding knockout display of Gareth Southgate’s time in charge – is anything to go by.
It is important not to get overexcited. Ukraine had lost two of their four games leading up to this quarter-final, having qualified for the knockouts as the worst of the best third-placed teams, and they had let in as many goals as they had scored. Andriy Shevchenko’s side exit with their goals conceded column in double figures.
Four of those goals are England’s, though, and were the crowning moments of a complete performance. Southgate will be especially pleased that two came from set-pieces, with Harry Maguire’s header at the start of the second half especially important, acting as a release valve, easing pressure and precipitating the exhibition that was to follow.
If the threat from dead balls was one familiar aspect of the Southgate era, there is also more evidence of a new trait: to start well, protect a lead and build on that advantage.
Look at England’s history of leading early in this tournament. They scored within the first five minutes at the Euros against Sweden in 1992, Germany in ‘96, Portugal in 2000, Portugal again in 2004 and Iceland in 2016. They lost all five of those games. An early lead has often been a sign of a difficult night ahead.
It did not feel that way at the Stadio Olimpico, with Ukraine only ever threatening in a decent spell of pressure towards the end of the first half. Otherwise, this was another example of England exerting absolute control over proceedings, to the point where ‘olés’ met their passes in the final stages and referee Felix Brych did not play any added time.
The four goals came early enough, too, for Southgate to remove the likes of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice, expunging the disciplinary records which threatened their place in the semi-finals. With no suspensions and a clean bill of health among the 26 players bar Bukayo Saka’s little knock, England are fully in control of their own destiny.
That’s what this performance was about: control. And up to this point, that’s what England’s tournament has been about too. It was the same story against Croatia and the Czech Republic. It was similar once they went ahead against Germany. That was even the case against Scotland, when Southgate appeared to accept that a point was a positive result.
People have repeatedly questioned his decisions, and some were even uncertain when it came to leaving out Jack Grealish out of the starting line-up here, but he is repeatedly being proved right. This time last week, England had only won one knockout tie at a European Championship in their history. They have now won three.
There is a shape, a style of play and – perhaps for the first time in a long time – the sense that an England team does not always have to play their very best players, or go all out at every moment in search of a goal. This England turns it off and on. They play on their own terms.
Denmark will be a different proposition. The narrative that Kasper Hjulmand’s team have been inspired by Christian Eriksen’s sad predicament is partly true – they are certainly playing for their teammate – but they are a good side regardless and, with all due respect, much better than Ukraine. They will travel to Wembley having already won there in the past 12 months.
Four days out, it feels like a banana skin, and not dissimilar from the semi-final with Croatia. Yet England are a different team from the one which lost at the Luzhniki. They have demonstrated that over the past three years, slowly developing under Southgate’s stewardship into a team that can score from open play and from set-pieces, that can shut games down and open them up.
They are stronger now, they have grown, and they will leave the Eternal City two games away from achieving their form of immortality.