SOLDIERING ON

'Magic moments and resilience can lead England to history'

For all their misfiring so far, Southgate’s team have the capacity for individual brilliance bolted onto in-built resilience

In Summary

• In a campaign of contrasts, there is still the possibility of a glorious conclusion.

• Five flawless penalties from Cole Palmer, Bellingham, Saka, Ivan Toney and Trent Alexander-Arnold, combined with goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s save from Manuel Akanji, got the job done

Starters of England before the Uefa Euro 2024 quarter-final match against Switzerland in Dusseldorf, Germany on July 6, 2024.
Starters of England before the Uefa Euro 2024 quarter-final match against Switzerland in Dusseldorf, Germany on July 6, 2024.
Image: XINHUA

England’s oddity of a Euro 2024 campaign was encapsulated by two qualities as they moved almost without trace into the last four of a major tournament once more.

Gareth Southgate and his players have heard, with justification, plenty about what they cannot do as a largely indifferent set of performances took them through the group stage and stumbling into the knockout rounds.

It is now time to give England credit for what they can do. The quarter-final win on penalties over Switzerland in Dusseldorf was another graphic example of a team making life difficult for themselves but still prevailing.

For all their misfiring so far, Southgate’s team have the capacity for individual brilliance bolted onto in-built resilience. In a campaign of contrasts, there is still the possibility of a glorious conclusion.

England may not have left it until the last 86 seconds to pull themselves away from the precipice this time, as they did against Slovakia in the last 16, thanks to Jude Bellingham’s moment of genius, but sweat may well have been forming on Southgate’s brow before Bukayo Saka’s drive levelled Breel Embolo’s Swiss opener with only 10 minutes left.

There was an irony in England’s Euro 2024 side looking at their most composed and in control during a penalty shootout— the cause of such heartache to previous generations.

Five flawless penalties from Cole Palmer, Bellingham, Saka, Ivan Toney and Trent Alexander-Arnold, combined with goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s save from Manuel Akanji, got the job done. Next, it’s on to a semi-final against the Netherlands in Dortmund on Wednesday.

England have existed in moments of brilliance in Germany. That has allowed strength of character to see them through.

It happened when Bellingham produced a stunning flying header for the winner against Serbia in their opening Group C game against Serbia, then most notably with the stunning overhead kick against Slovakia just as England’s cases were being packed for departure.

Against Switzerland, it was Saka, England’s best player on the day, who produced the goods by cutting in from the right to send a low drive past keeper Yann Sommer. It was a deserved reward for an outstanding performance.

England’s win was settled on those penalties to give Southgate a record of three semi-finals and a quarter-final in four major tournaments. They still have to leap that last barrier and win a trophy but they are in a position to do so, almost despite themselves.

This is an England team who struggled to break down Denmark and Slovenia in two draws in Group C. They only got past Slovakia and Switzerland, the latter on penalties, after extra time in the knockouts. They have not set pulses racing and yet they are still in the last four.

Southgate switched to a three-man defensive system after a series of flawed midfield selections but it was a set-up just as lacking in menace until Saka dug them out of a hole.

England looked more comfortable in the system. And the drama and elation of the win on penalties offered up the temptation to don rose-tinted spectacles when much of the fare in Dusseldorf was average.

Saka’s goal, as with Bellingham’s against Slovakia, was England’s first shot on target, evidence of the lack of creation, even with a more solid structure.

England deserve their due for a refusal to buckle in the face of adversity, which has rescued them twice, first against Slovakia and now Switzerland. The fact that it takes adversity to jolt them into life is less praiseworthy, a fault that applies to Southgate as well as his players.

England had started to drift before Embolo put Switzerland ahead, Southgate instantly sending on Luke Shaw for his first action in five months, plus Palmer and Eberechi Eze, with Kieran Trippier, Ezri Konsa and Kobbie Mainoo the three men replaced. It was reactive management prompted by falling behind.

Southgate could say he was holding his nerve but it is hardly the sign of a considered gameplan to throw three players on the moment you have to score.

England have been making an art of living dangerously and getting away with it. The talented Dutch may not be as generous as Slovakia and Switzerland. But Southgate’s side are not easily beaten— and their confidence will be fuelled by the belief there is so much more to come from them if they can get it right.

Southgate will be assured by the composed performance of Aston Villa defender Ezri Konsa as deputy for suspended Marc Guehi, while 19-year-old Mainoo was nerveless, making another excellent contribution before he was substituted.

Harry Kane is a concern, however, looking out on his feet for much of the game, and barely able to raise a gallop or a jump by the time he was substituted. He will be vital against the Netherlands so Southgate will hope the captain can regain his drive and energy.

As for Southgate himself, he now prepares for another semi-final as England - despite everything— stand one game away from the Euro 2024 final in Berlin on July 14.