England’s performances at Euro 2020 represent progress. The men’s team reached their first major football tournament final in more than half a century.

Yet the denouement against Italy on Sunday featured many plot points of an all-too-familiar script. Up against strong opposition, the team surged to an early lead. Then, they couldn’t maintain possession of the ball, fell back into deep defending, conceded a crucial goal, and ultimately, lost on penalties.

It is a pattern that Gareth Southgate, England’s manager, has attempted to disrupt throughout his five-year tenure in charge. Through meticulous planning, he has transformed them into genuine contenders, merely a kick or two away from claiming one of the sport’s greatest prizes.

And yet, England still fell agonisingly short.

“You make hundreds of decisions in the course of a week, in the course of a tournament. You are not going to get all of those right,” said a crestfallen Southgate on Monday. “If I didn’t make the calls right last night, then so be it. I have to live with that.”

Still, England’s failure should be put in its proper context. At the last Euros in 2016, England lost in truly humiliating fashion against Iceland.

Southgate watched that match live and considered it a classic case of “choking” — a problem of the mind as much as the body, players suddenly unable to perform in ways that years of training as elite footballers should have automatised.

After being appointed England manager in November 2016, he conducted a survey to understand the Iceland debacle. The conclusion? Many players loathed the relentless pressure around the national team, believing wearing the shirt was a heavy burden.

Southgate’s response has been to lower expectations, declining to feed the narrative that England’s manifest destiny was to dominate the world’s favourite sport. Whenever asked, he told an expectant media harsh truths: England have not really come close to triumphing at a tournament since the 1966 World Cup on home soil.

Asked by reporters on Monday, if his team had been “too nice to win”, the idea that a callow side had lacked bloody-mindedness, Southgate reminded them: “we’ve got to a final, the first time for 55 years . . . we’ve overcome a lot of hurdles that we’ve never been able to in the past.”

An introspective Southgate has continually sought to understand those past losses, in particular, England’s exit at the 2018 World Cup in the semi-final against Croatia. After taking an early lead in that match, England became exhausted from chasing the ball. Croatia scored two late goals to secure a deserved victory.

“Could we have been a little more brave or composed [against Croatia]?” said England defender Harry Maguire last week. “And take the ball when we were leading the game, rather than sit back and soak up the pressure? . . . we’ve looked at it over the three-year period and for sure we’re in a better place now than when we played Croatia.”

Southgate’s solution has been to instruct the team to employ “game management” or deliberately create lulls in a match by keeping the ball. These periods may be boring to watch but allow players to catch their breath. The strategy helps to avoid fatigue over the course of a month-long competition.

Yet against Italy, England were simply unable to employ the strategy. Southgate said it is too early to fully understand why.

The England manger has continually sought to break with tired dogmas. Prior to his appointment, the team did not systematically practice penalties before tournaments, believing it impossible to replicate the pressure of a shootout in a real match.

Southgate has forced players to simulate the lonely walk from the halfway line before a spot kick. They were advised to slow down and have faith they can execute a skill practised hundreds of times before.

The trio who missed spot kicks on Sunday, Marcus Rashford, 23, Jadon Sancho, 21, and Bukayo Saka, 19, had been among the best performers in training. Southgate disregarded their youth and trusted in the data that they could succeed.

There will be regrets. The nature of this competition, held in 11 cities across Europe, has smoothed England’s progress. Having all but one of their matches at Wembley Stadium in London ensured the team benefited from the well-recorded phenomenon of “home advantage”.

Studies have suggested this edge largely comes from partisan home crowds influencing refereeing decisions. One example of this may have been the contentious penalty awarded to England in the semi-final against Denmark, given for a slight foul on Raheem Sterling that led to the team’s winning goal.

England also travelled less than any other side in the tournament. By contrast, Wales were beaten in the last-16 by Denmark in Amsterdam, having travelled a total of 9,156km — including matches in Baku, Azerbaijan and in Rome.

If the Euros were ideally constructed for English success, Southgate still needed to locate a formula to reach the final, a feat that evaded the 17 men to have held his post since Sir Alf Ramsey.

His leadership style has been to provide his young charges with analytical insight rather than Churchillian rhetoric. The coach has sought to reduce the burden of history, take the heat of expectation off England’s task, and methodologically win enough matches to claim a major tournament title.

That goal rolls on to a 56th year with a World Cup that takes place in Qatar in 2022. Southgate remains a realist about the moment his team has just squandered.

“When you’re in sport and you get to finals, you know those opportunities are so rare,” he said. “It’s easy to say, we can go on to Qatar and win. That’s a bit glib, really. It’s a long journey.”