England fans woke up yesterday not quite sure whether to celebrate a remarkably confident shootout performance that sent them into the Euro2024 semi-finals or lament another display of caution and inertia by their players and manager.
On the profit side of the ledger was a shootout that should, finally, banish the folk memory of all the penalty pain that preceded it since the first of many defeats by West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-finals. Cole Palmer, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Ivan Toney and Trent Alexander-Arnold all looked as if they would score, and all did so, expertly.
It should not have come as a surprise as Palmer, Toney and Saka are all regular and hugely impressive penalty takers for their clubs, while Bellingham and Alexander-Arnold are among the sweetest strikers of a ball in the game.
With goalkeeper Jordan Pickford going through the full repertoire of “taking control” before saving Manuel Akanji’s weak effort, it was an exemplar of how to go about a shootout. Factoring in a Nations League playoff, also against Switzerland, England have now won three of their last four shootouts under Southgate, having lost six of their seven before that.
They have also now reached the semi-final in three of the last four tournaments - a remarkable achievement given that they had previously managed four in their entire history. England now have a very winnable game against the Netherlands, who have stumbled and scrapped their way into the last four, with the possibility of a third major final appearance and first on foreign soil tantalisingly close. And yet, behind the singing and dancing, looms the uncomfortable truth that England have got this far largely playing very poorly, certainly in attack.
Their defence has been very good, with every opponent generally kept at long range, but despite boasting an extraordinary array of talent in their ranks, England have been nothing short of boring. On Saturday, Saka’s 80th-minute equaliser was their first shot on target, just as Bellingham’s extraordinary equaliser against Slovakia was, in the 95th minute. The average world ranking of the teams they have beaten - Serbia, Denmark, Slovenia, Slovakia and Switzerland - is 35, yet, other than in fleeting patches and moments of individual brilliance, never have now fifth-ranked England looked a dominant team.
They were better on Saturday in terms of probing for openings, but on the few occasions they did get behind the Swiss defence, the quality of cross or final pass was awful. Southgate had, laughably, said on Friday that his mentality was to “go for it”, yet England did anything but. On one occasion late in the game they took a short corner that, three touches later, ended up at the feet of their own goalkeeper. The massed fans behind Pickford’s goal could hardly believe their eyes, having long been reduced to near silence by the frankly dull fare they were being expected to encourage.
Southgate was widely pilloried for bringing on Toney with one minute to go in the Slovakia match but he appeared wedded to his starting 11 again on Saturday, making a triple change in the 76th minute only after going behind. Even then he persisted with Harry Kane, despite his captain clearly struggling to jog, let alone sprint, before being removed in extra-time after literally falling into his coach’s arms after a touchline tumble.
Like a farmer unable to shoot the trusty old sheepdog, Southgate seems determined to keep faith with a striker who is so deadly in the regular season but who so often arrives at summer tournaments looking as if he is carrying a fridge. For all the problems, however, England are still there, while Germany, Italy, Belgium and Portugal et al are not, and that’s a scenario the fans would have gobbled up at the start of the tournament, however it has been achieved.
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