Time for England to show their quality or Gareth Southgate era will be over

Time for England to show their quality or Gareth Southgate era will be over

Key to the euphoria that greeted England’s demolition of the Netherlands at Euro 96 was that no one – perhaps other than the manager, Terry Venables – saw it coming. Dutch football was treated as something impossibly sophisticated back then, so when Venables’s tactics flummoxed the country of Johan Cruyff it was inevitable that his side’s 4-1 win would still be a talking point 28 years later.

These days, though, it takes more than winning a big group game for England to capture the public’s imagination. The time has passed when success is measured in cautious progress through tournaments. Expectations have gone through the roof this summer and Gareth Southgate, while proud of the advancements made during his eight years in charge, knows that the only question left to answer is whether he can push his team over the line at Euro 2024.

No one is interested in listening to talk of a third semi-final in four tournaments. In Dortmund, where England are preparing for Wednesday night’s semi-final against a decent but hardly awe-inspiring Netherlands, all anyone wants to find out is whether the doubters are right about Southgate being too limited and boring to win a trophy.

Some of the criticism is over the top. Nobody is pretending that England have been playing Total Football but they are defending well and their resilience against Switzerland and Slovakia owes much to Southgate.

Equally there are fair questions to ask about his management. England have been unbalanced on the left and have struggled to find the right blend in midfield. They have spluttered in attack, although a lack of entertainment has been a problem for many teams during a low-scoring tournament. “There’s 13 goals fewer than the last Euros,” Southgate said on Tuesday. “Our sport is one where you sometimes play as well as the opponent allows you.”

Coordinated patterns are harder to implement in international football. England are not going to play like Manchester City just because they have Phil Foden, and the answer is not simply for Southgate to take off the handbrake. During their quarter-final against Switzerland last Saturday, they were better in the first half because their switch to 3-4-2-1 gave them more control in the middle.

Alan Shearer kickstarts England’s famous 4-1 win over the Netherlands in Euro 96 with a penalty.View image in fullscreen

Yet there are issues to resolve. Marc Guéhi could come back in for Ezri Konsa in central defence but Kieran Trippier may continue at left wing-back, even though Luke Shaw is back after five months out with a hamstring injury. The Netherlands, who will send Denzel Dumfries marauding down the right, will look to exploit that flank. On the opposite side, they will hope that Liverpool’s Cody Gakpo can continue his excellent form against Kyle Walker. If they need a goal, expect Ronald Koeman to chuck Wout Weghorst on and go direct.

Southgate has to be forward thinking if momentum swings away from England. There is no room for the kind of indecision that had them wobbling in the second half against Switzerland, making attacking changes only once they were 1-0 down.

The question is whether Southgate sees things quickly enough. He accepts his changes could come sooner, although he was also rewarded for keeping Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane on against Slovakia. “You can force a change but if the team are in the rhythm of the game and individuals are playing pretty well, you can put freshness on, but we’ve still got faith in the players,” Southgate said. “I think the team have thrived through that support.

“I’ve seen a lot of other big managers hold their nerve and wait a really long time to make changes. You just have to try to have a feel of the flow of the game.”

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The hope for England is that they do not need to hit the emergency button. They need Declan Rice and Kobbie Mainoo to dominate a midfield shorn of Frenkie de Jong. The Netherlands have flaws – they were heavily criticised after losing to Austria and finishing third in their group – and were run close by Turkey in their quarter-final. Rafael Benítez, working as a technical observer for Uefa, notes that the Dutch were vulnerable to Turkey running behind their defence.

Can England do that? They have played in front of teams, building laboriously, and need to move the ball at a high tempo. Bukayo Saka is in good form and is an obvious outlet as an attacking right wing-back but Foden is not affecting the game enough and Bellingham is playing in moments. Kane’s physical problems, combined with a lack of runners around him, are also clogging things up.

Naturally Kane again denied that he was short of fitness. He will have seen how many chances Turkey created and will back himself against any defender – even Virgil van Dijk. “Virgil is one of the best defenders in the world,” Kane said. “He’s strong, powerful, quick. It might be different areas that I have to exploit and try and hurt him. It might not just be me, it might be other players that drag him out of position.”

But if England get bogged down in the final third, or if they find themselves pinned back, it is up to Southgate to use his bench. He spoke about breaking more new ground, pointing out that England’s men have never been to a final on foreign soil. He is not satisfied with another semi-final. But at BVB Stadion Dortmund, where the famous Yellow Wall is expected to turn “Oranje”, much will depend on whether he can make bold decisions under pressure. Can he win the tactical battle? Can England finally click in attack and make it to Berlin? Can they respond if the tide turns in the second half? If not, the Southgate era will be over.

Source: theguardian.com