Problems remain but the joy is back for England

The joy has returned to this England camp. 

It is a joy that has permeated the majority of Gareth Southgate’s century of matches. A joyousness that the England manager has strived so hard to nurture. The joy which was disintegrating towards the end of a turgid last-16 game against Slovakia. It’s back. The joy is back.

The players have talked a good game throughout: “special bunch of lads”, “love spending time together”, “oblivious to the negativity outside”, “belief has never been stronger”. There’s been a consistent, almost monotonous message of positivity and unity exuding from the England squad ever since they first joined up at St George’s Park on May 28, well-nigh six weeks ago.

But until now, you didn’t quite believe it.

On the pitch, there has been obvious malcontent. Spats between John Stones and Kyle Walker. Jordan Pickford ranting regularly at his full-backs. Declan Rice frantically gesticulating towards team-mates. Jude Bellingham throwing his arms up in despair.

But finally, inside the Merkur Spiel-Arena in Dusseldorf, the unbridled joy and unity was there for all to see. The players embraced and danced and sang along with the tens of thousands of England supporters who spilled in a frothing mass of exultation in front of them. They were joined by the manager, 100 games in and still going. Strong-ish.

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Penalty decision-making, tactical plans and England’s streetwise nature were on the agenda during Gareth Southgate’s press conference following the Switzerland win

Southgate had been forced to cower under a shower of plastic cups and abuse that rained down on him from some fans as he left the pitch in Cologne after the dismal 0-0 draw with Slovenia. That was just two weeks ago. Now here he was, orchestrating the crowd, roaring back at them, applauding their loyalty. Boy, how the mood has changed.

Let’s have it right – there are still a host of problems within this England team and the way they are playing. Problems which could be horribly exposed against a strong Netherlands team on Wednesday in Dortmund. But you cannot help feeling that this team now has a special momentum, having reached just about as close to rock bottom as you can get, and escaping. Twice.

Perfect penalties

England players celebrate after defeating Switzerland on penalties to advance to the semi-finals of Euro 2024
England players celebrate after defeating Switzerland on penalties to advance to the semi-finals of Euro 2024

Penalties do not hold the same fear for this current generation of England players. That is some statement in its own right. England’s horrible history with spot-kicks is written large into the fabric of our national sport. But what we saw in Dusseldorf was very different. In so many ways it was restorative, and it was special.

The captain, Harry Kane, admitted as much when I spoke to him post-match – and he, England’s best penalty taker, was forced to watch along with the rest of us tortured souls from the pitch side.

Cole Palmer – yet to start a game in this or any major tournament – stepped up first. Ice-cold Cole.

Jordan Pickford displayed all the antics he has learned from so many spot-kicks of the past. He told me post-match that the referee had threatened to book him if he didn’t get back on his line quicker. Treading that fine line. His famous water bottle – a miniaturised encyclopaedia of which Swiss players would shoot where – was bang on. It said Manuel Akanji would go to his left. Pickford dived left. England were ahead.

Jude Bellingham did as was expected. Class personified. No drama or surprise there.

And then there was Bukayo Saka. A man who has become the figurehead of resilience and positivity in this England squad. A shining light for our society, in so many ways. He was the best player on the pitch in the quarter-final. He scored the equaliser with a brilliantly cultured curler. And he stood up to be counted – again – on the biggest stage, when his last Euros shoot-out had ended in devastation, and a horrific raft of criminal, racist abuse.

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Captain Harry Kane praised Bukayo Saka’s mentality after stepping up to take a penalty in England’s win over Switzerland

When he scored, with such defiant aplomb, the entire English media pack around me rose as one to herald him. That is not something you see often. It is frowned upon by UEFA. Journalists are supposed to be neutral, professional, reserved. So to see each man and woman in the media tribune roaring their unanimous approval and affection for Saka – it felt like redemption. It felt special.

Ivan Toney told me after the game that he didn’t feel any more nerves than he did when taking a penalty for Brentford. He looked in the goalkeeper’s eyes, waited for Yann Sommer to move, and stroked the ball without even looking at it. Extraordinary.

Then came Trent Alexander-Arnold – the man who had looked broken when I saw him walk towards the England bus after he’d been unceremoniously substituted shortly after half-time against Denmark in Game Two. England’s best ball-striker couldn’t miss, could he? Nope. Game over.

Five perfect penalties. One superb save. England were through.

Tired bodies – but 3-2-4-1 must stay

So what comes next? Well, the toughest thing for England now is recovery. Two successive games of 120 minutes. Two games which have been incredibly draining both physically and emotionally. Pickford told me England had been through the trenches. They need time to rejuvenate. But they don’t have time.

Whereas there was a six-day gap building up to the quarter-final against Switzerland, there is just a three-day gap before Netherlands in the semi-final. Half as much time to recover and prepare.

The good news is, Southgate seems to have struck a new system that allowed his players to perform at a much higher standard. The manager and his assistant Steve Holland deserve huge credit for that. In the space of three days, they ripped up the plan that had personified England’s tactics for the best part of three years, and they started again with a new formation, a new way of playing. Their performance against Switzerland for much of the 90 minutes was their best of the tournament. 3-2-4-1 must stay.

Gareth Southgate attempts to prevent Harry Kane falling into the England dugout
Southgate attempts to prevent Harry Kane falling into the England dugout

For the first time, England had width. Kieran Trippier and Saka hugged the touchline. England found it much easier to get out of defence, and the interminable backwards and sideways passing that had punctuated their first four games was much more rarely seen. I still have concerns about the big gaps that the formation creates in the middle of midfield. But Kobbie Mainoo was hugely impressive alongside Declan Rice in plugging those gaps and getting England ticking.

The fact that England were so dominant for three-quarters of the quarter-final, and yet still had no shot on target before Saka’s equaliser, is a major worry. It is inexplicable. On several occasions, Saka got goal-side of Michel Aebischer, only for his cut-back to find no England foot.

Kane still isn’t right, physically, I am sure of it. He would have gobbled up one or two of those crosses if he was. Bellingham and Phil Foden must do much more with their runs into the box. Foden in particular must recapture his goalscoring genius for Manchester City, if he is to help England to a Euros crown.

Nevertheless, he impressed me with his link-up play. I don’t think he has had a bad game for England in the last few matches, and his influence is growing. The understanding and communication between the two ‘number 10s’ worked.

Southgate’s Shaw dilemma

Luke Shaw returned to action against Switzerland as a sub
Luke Shaw returned to action against Switzerland as a sub

Southgate has a huge call to make about Luke Shaw. The plan was to give him 15 minutes of action as he recovers from a hamstring injury that has starved him of any football since mid-February. He played 45 minutes against Switzerland. How has that affected him physically? Is he stronger or weaker for the experience? Only Southgate and his medics will know. The manager will then have to decide if Shaw can start a high-intensity semi-final, four days after his first game in almost five months. That would be a huge, huge ask.

His left foot on the left flank would be a big plus. Trippier has been hugely impressive in his reliability and his versatility. He has been a stalwart of the Southgate era. But he is a right-back, playing on the left flank. I suspect he might keep his place for the semi-final.

Kieran Trippier
Kieran Trippier may retain his spot on the left side

Monday and Tuesday will be big days for England. They are the only training days they have to perfect their tactics for Netherlands. And, knowing Southgate’s schedules, Monday will be an introduction to his and assistant Steve Holland’s thinking, before plans are finalised on Tuesday.

Even for England’s harshest critics – of whom there were many in white shirts that I spoke to in the bars of Dusseldorf leading up to the quarter-final – they surely must be full of admiration for the sheer guts and character that this team has shown. A 96th-minute overhead kick to keep them in the tournament, then a spotless set of spot-kicks in the quarter-final to help them progress.

Out of almost sheer willpower, England have dragged themselves to a major semi-final, having won just one of their five matches in 90 minutes.

That character and never-say-die determination should not be underestimated. It won’t be enough, on its own, to nobble Netherlands. But it’s got them this far, and they are now just one match away from a Euros final in Berlin.

Who plays who in the semi-finals?

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