Technocrat Southgate has been transformed into reckless adventurer | Jonathan Wilson

Estimated read time 5 min read

England’s problem, in major tournament game after major tournament game, has been taking an early lead. Since time immemorial the English response to going ahead has been to try to protect what they have, as though inspired by some Boy’s Own urge to recreate the siege of Mafeking at every opportunity. What better way to avoid that then, than by going behind and only taking the lead at the very last?

That’s obviously not the plan, but it does seem in keeping with the wildness of late-era Gareth Southgate. The technocrat with his clipboard and his data has somehow been transformed into a reckless adventurer. Why rust unburnished on the shore when you can set off into the dark, broad seas, court adventure and improvise? Who remembers the back four now? Who wants to win tournaments with clean sheets when you could progress with injury-time goals and a sense of narrative inevitability? Why try to be Portugal or France, when you can be something far less explicable, far more magical?

Coming from behind is how England got past Slovakia and Switzerland, and it was, eventually, how they got past the Netherlands as well.

These are the games that etch moments into the national consciousness, often more so when there is failure: Chris Waddle’s penalty, Paul Gascoigne’s outstretched toe, Jordan Henderson running futile shuttles across the pitch against Croatia. But even if Spain win on Sunday, England will have the memory of Ollie Watkins scoring the most Ollie Watkins goal imaginable to reach the first major men’s tournament final they have ever reached outside of England.

Football is a capricious game, bedevilled by ironies and paradoxes. England had, finally in this tournament, looked fluent from the off.

Ollie Watkins (centre) celebrates after scoring his team's second goal past Netherlands' goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen (left) during the Euro 2024 semi-final match between Netherlands and England.View image in fullscreen

Until Luke Shaw came on at half-time, there was no left side, but that has become such a familiar flaw that it barely seems worth commenting on any more. England’s left flank for much of this tournament has existed as a sort of phantom limb: a memory of it remains, there may even be times when there is an urge to scratch it, or play the ball out there, but it soon passes.

The thought before the game had been that England’s shape meant that, unless the Netherlands pressed with great alacrity and maintained a compact shape, they would often have an extra man in the middle of midfield. Not only that, but that England’s personnel in that area seemed physically more imposing. So of course the opening goal came from Xavi Simons dispossessing Declan Rice, a player with a good three and a half inches on him.

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But that put England where they wanted to be: behind. And for once in this tournament, they were not playing a team who dropped deep into a low block at every opportunity. There was space for England and they relished passing the ball into it. This was by far their best performance of the tournament. There were backheels and volleys and backheel volleys. Kobbie Mainoo glided about with astonishing confidence and maturity, controlling midfield with the quality of his passing; the idea that at the start of the tournament he was third choice for the role has come to seem vaguely hallucinatory. Phil Foden kept bending left-footed shots at goal. It all felt very unSouthgate: it was thrilling, disconcertingly so. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. In the midst of it all there was a slightly debatable penalty that Harry Kane converted.

It was a measure of how well England had played that, other than his header at goal from a right-wing corner, Denzel Dumfries, such an attacking threat for the Netherlands, had only four touches in the England half before half-time. But there was also the knowledge that in every game in this tournament, the Netherlands had improved after half-time. When Memphis Depay went off, it felt significant that Ronald Koeman replaced him with a midfielder in Joey Veerman. At the break he went for his familiar card in a crisis: Wout Weghorst for Donyell Malen; it was still 4-2-3-1 but a much less attacking variant of it.

England's Phil Foden has a shot which hits the post during the Euro 2024 semi-final match between Netherlands and England.View image in fullscreen

With the big man up front, an obvious outlet, it allowed the Netherlands midfield to sit a little deeper so they were more compact.

The space was no longer there for England. The flow was checked and the thought arose that a more ruthless side, a better side, might have ensured they took the lead when they had the advantage. As well as another chance from a set play Dumfries had 12 touches in the England half in the second half.

For all the dragons Southgate has slain – penalties, Germany, Koeman – the one he still seems unable to dispatch is the Sven-Göran Eriksson trait of first half good, second half not so good. And nobody would ever accuse Southgate of being over-hasty in his use of substitutions. The game drifted. It was level too long; England cannot bear too much equality.

And yet they still won it. It turned out Southgate had made the substitution at the perfect time. It turned out he had brought on the right men: Cole Palmer to Watkins to a winner. It turned out that, despite it all, England were going to their second successive European Championship final. Late-era Southgate is bewildering, but it is magnificent. Whether it will be enough for Spain on Sunday is another matter entirely. Logic says not, but logic has ceased to have much to do with it.


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