Sunday, July 21, 2024

England’s semi-final win at Euro 2024 vindicates Gareth Southgate and provides another magical moment

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What a moment in a tournament that has now been full of moments for this England team. To the list of Jude Bellingham’s overhead kick and Bukayo Saka’s late equaliser, add Ollie Watkins’ winner that has put England into the final of Euro 2024.

This tops the lot, Watkins’ fierce shot fired into the bottom corner as the clock struck 90. Never before have England’s men reached a final on foreign soil. They have done so by coming from behind in all three knockout ties so far. A testament to their resilience.

It is not how teams start a tournament, it is how they finish them. And perhaps for the first time in Germany this summer, England looked like a team capable of finishing Euro 2024 as champions. Their first half against the Netherlands was by far their best.

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England fans across the country went wild as their team reached the Euro 2024 final

After falling behind to Xavi Simons’ superb shot inside seven minutes, it did take a fortunate penalty award to level it up, converted by Harry Kane. But England finally found some space in midfield and played with a tempo more becoming of this team.

When Ronald Koeman changed things tactically, there were echoes of those past near misses. What would Gareth Southgate do now? The answer was take off Kane and Phil Foden for Watkins and Cole Palmer. The two combined for the winner.

Huge for the country, huge for Southgate. England’s football history is still about 1966 and all that. But the other two finals that the men have now reached, the majority, in fact, have come under the leadership of the oft-criticised Southgate.

There has been some acrimony but just watch that dissipate. Ninety minutes against Spain could now separate Southgate’s England from lifting this trophy for the first time, marking Berlin 2024 as one of the most historic nights in the nation’s football history.

Ollie Watkins fires England ahead against the Netherlands
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The moment Watkins fired England ahead against Netherlands

“There has been a definite shift,” Southgate had suggested beforehand when referring to the mood within his squad. He talked of expectation weighing heavily on England during the group stage. Into the last four but no longer favourites, it just felt different.

Some of the individual performances were a joy to watch. Foden showing what he could do cutting inside in that right channel. Kobbie Mainoo dropping the shoulder and gliding away from trouble with a swagger. This was Southgate’s England reimagined.

There was a dip, of course there was. Maybe it was fatigue, more likely it was the tactical tweak by Koeman that squeezed the space for England’s most creative players. But once again they found a way. It has happened too often now to be a coincidence.

“Pressure is for tyres,” roared Alan Shearer after the penalty shoot-out win over Switzerland. “It is a different generation. They don’t feel it.” Well, perhaps. But the pressure is real. It just reveals character. This group have an extraordinary belief.

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Ollie Watkins insisted his friends and family told him he was going to score

Southgate himself had said he always felt the moment was coming against Slovakia. Few shared that view. Here, Watkins even turned to Palmer as they prepared to come on and confidently declared to his colleague that he would be the one assisting his winner.

It helped that he was on the pitch to do it, Southgate picking the right player for the right moment. Again, removing his captain. But appreciating that it was Watkins’ ability in behind against an ageing centre-back pairing that could make the difference this time.

Match-winner Ollie Watkins is congratulated by Gareth Southgate
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Match-winner Watkins is congratulated by Gareth Southgate

Some underwhelming performances in getting here? No doubt. They have not been as fluent as their final opponents, that is undeniable.

The tactical debates have been a feature of their time in Germany, but it is the culture created by Southgate that has carried them through. There is a unity within this group. Asked what had been the most important factor, Declan Rice replied: “Togetherness.”

Kane was among the first to celebrate with Watkins, running back onto the pitch to join his deputy. Ivan Toney had enjoyed his own moments off the bench of late but here it was the turn of England’s other striker. The depth among this group could be decisive.

The easier half of the draw? Of course. But it helps when England win their group and earn their place in that half of the draw.

Second to Romania at the 1998 World Cup, third behind them at Euro 2000. In the years since, but prior to Southgate’s appointment, England have finished below Sweden, the United States and Wales in major tournament group stages. Winning the group is key.

Could they now win the whole thing?

Gareth Southgate gestures 'one more game' to the fans after England's semi-final win against the Netherlands
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Southgate gestures ‘one more game’ to the fans after England’s victory

You will have heard the tale of Portugal lifting this trophy despite not winning a group game. The example of Argentina losing to Saudi Arabia at the last World Cup and going on to glory. Stories of how England have redeemed themselves after sluggish starts.

Of course, those England teams succeeded in shifting the narrative but not the outcome. They fell short in 1990 and in 1996, in 2018 and 2021. Indeed, the recent evidence of the European Championship offers an alternative interpretation of events.

Three summers ago, Italy were the only nation to win all three group games without conceding a goal. They went on to defeat England in the final. This time around, Spain were the only side to repeat Italy’s feat and they too now stand in Southgate’s way.

Spain stand in their way

There has been a fluency to Spain’s play, the combinations in midfield coming at speed, the movement off the ball more akin to a club side than the stultified efforts of many international outfits. Some see them as deserving winners. They have been refreshing.

Luis de la Fuente’s Spain, fusing that famed passing game with a newfound incision out wide, have certainly inspired. They have somehow conceded fewer goals than England too, despite facing stronger opposition and adopting a more ambitious approach.

But, belatedly, England do look ready to take them on.

In the previous two rounds, England conceded the better chances and still scraped through. Seconds from the exit in the round of 16, there were whole minutes to spare in the quarter-final – a relative age. Luck has been ridden. Bullets dodged.

And it has taken them to Berlin. This performance was more than an escape, it was one that hinted at the true potential within the squad. Spain will be formidable. But England will now sense what is possible. One more game, one more magical moment required.

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