How England went from dreadful to joyous at Euro 2024 under Gareth Southgate | Football


Gareth Southgate and his players after the shoot-out win over Switzerland (Picture: Getty Images)

Are England really good? Was this always the masterplan from Gareth Southgate? Or are we the imposters of the Euro 2024 semi-finals? Does anyone really know anymore? The Three Lions are a mystery wrapped up in a puzzle.

A winning formula – of sorts

‘Every now and then surely there has to be some enjoyment in this job’. Poor Southgate. If you can’t enjoy reaching a third semi-final in four tournaments, then something is definitely wrong. And yet for all England’s failure to impress overall, in four matches prior to Saturday’s hard-fought shoot-out win over Switzerland, his team are in the semi-finals.

How did they get there? At times, it is scarcely believable but, maybe, just maybe, consider this: England are good. Yes, it flies in the face of all the evidence. The three group-stage matches appeared to take place in a state of inertia while the Slovakia last-16 tie was unwatchable at times, an England team consumed by their inability to function.

But in terms of being hard to beat and making progress, it works. This way works. How far it takes them remains to be seen but few saw a last-four spot on the horizon over the past three weeks, so we will probably end up winning the thing.

As far-fetched as that sounds, who else? Spain are the most attractive team left but attractive teams don’t always succeed (sorry, Turkey). Portugal’s 2016 triumph showed you can grind it out.

Wait for it – he’s the greatest. Yes, Gareth Southgate

Southgate has been ground down and the joy of that 2018 World Cup run has evaporated from his face. Six years as England boss takes a toll and it’s no wonder a siege mentality exists in the camp. Maybe channelling the noise from outside is working to England’s advantage.

The only thing that might rekindle that same pure feeling for him at this difficult competition is by winning it. He will never convince some people – possibly even if his team do lift the trophy.

But, on results, he will still go down as the nation’s greatest manager whether or not he wins this trophy. His record deserves respect. It’s just that few truly appreciate it. In Gareth we still trust. No, really.

Bukayo Saka, Jordan Pickford, Jude Bellingham, John Stones and Harry Kane enjoy reaching the semi-finals (Picture: Getty Images)

We’re in the trenches here

The grit and determination, the defensive stability, the ability to get over the line is only half the story. Once again, England were pretty dreadful at times: giving the ball away cheaply, lacking much urgency until going behind and looking for all the world like they were playing for penalties.

A strategy which has worked so far but not one we’d love to see again. Jordan Pickford referred to it as England’s ‘trenches’ game post-match. If someone misses and we lose on spot-kicks, the tale of woe would be evident, so to don rose-tinted glasses now we’ve won seems rather disingenuous. It was hard to watch and nothing about England’s progress has been easy.

They defy logic. The only time they looked in full control in Dusseldorf was during the shoot-out.

Bukayo Saka’s celebrates scoring in the shoot-out against Switzerland (Picture: Getty Images)

Saka brings back the joy

Trent Alexander-Arnold could have tapped out of Euro 2024 as the (unfair) focus of the struggles in the group stage through his midfield cameos. But he summed up England’s penalty prowess with the winning spot-kick.

Ivan Toney will feel a closer part of things after his conversion – he didn’t even look at the ball. Extraordinary. Cole Palmer belied his young age and inexperience by taking penalty No.1 and Jude Bellingham – of course – made it look easy.

But it was hyper-versatile Bukayo Saka’s moment of redemption, a la Stuart Pearce in ’96 but rather more understated, which provided the joy.

There has been little magic from England so far. Could it be returning? If the players feel joy again, that will transmit to the stands in Dortmund. Put it all together and memories of those shocking early displays can be consigned to history.


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