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England Finally Got It Right

Ollie Watkins of England celebrates scoring his team's second goal with teammates from the substitutes bench during the UEFA EURO 2024 semi-final match between Netherlands and England at Football Stadium Dortmund on July 10, 2024 in Dortmund, Germany.
Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Gareth Southgate finally found someone he could out-coach. The English manager has been bombarded with criticism during the Euros, including by yours truly, but credit where credit is due: England beat the Netherlands 2-1 on Wednesday to advance to the final of the tournament thanks in large part to some key tactical adjustments by its successful and infuriating manager, who enacted both a better gameplan and a more effective substitution regimen than his counterpart, Ronald Koeman. It wasn't a perfect showcase for Southgate, but that won't matter, as a penalty by Harry Kane and a late game-winner by substitute Ollie Watkins were enough to send the Dutch home and England into a marquee showdown with Spain on Sunday.

The first tactical adjustment Southgate deployed was in regards to the role of Phil Foden. The biggest problem for England's attack in the matches leading up to the semifinal was that three of its four attackers prefer to play in the center of the pitch. In prior matches, that has led to congestion in that valuable area of the field, with little room for combination plays and runs into non-existent space. On Wednesday, the solution was quite simple: Foden and Jude Bellingham played almost inside forward roles next to Kane, with Bukayo Saka still providing width down the right. While on paper this seems very similar to the problematic set-up that has plagued England throughout the tournament, and Foden did spend a majority of his time on the inside left side of attack, the Manchester City midfielder was free to go into the right side more than he had previously, overloading the Dutch defense and allowing him to play triangle passes with Saka and Kyle Walker.

In practice, this meant Saka was isolated against Nathan Aké, and while the defender did well to stop one-on-ones, there weren't enough Dutch players in the area to stop the passing combinations and close in on, specifically, Foden. Two of England's best chances in the first half came from Foden receiving the ball in the right half-space between the defensive lines and blasting his patented left-footed curlers to the far post; one hit the post and the other was saved, but the danger was there, and that forced the Dutch defense to adjust to Foden's movement, rather than dealing with a concentrated English attack in the very center of the field.

That adjustment certainly made England's play easier on the eyes, though it didn't lead to immediate success. It was the Netherlands' Xavi Simons who opened the scoring with one of the better goals of the tournament in the seventh minute, though England tied things up via the aforementioned Kane penalty in the 18th. While the move leading up to Denzel Dumfries clipping Kane on a shot—this was probably a good call, though it is rare that a penalty gets called for a foul after a shot; that being said, if Kane had been passing instead of shooting, no one would argue with the ref giving a penalty, even if it looked like Kane kicked Dumfries as much as the reverse—did come from the right side, it was because Saka finally got enough room to drive into the box and shoot. The rebound landed at Kane's foot, and the rest was VAR-aided history.

This match might have still been back-and-forth if not for a key Dutch injury soon after the English goal. Memphis Depay, the Netherlands' most mercurial but also most important attacker, went down with a hamstring injury in the 35th minute, coming off immediately for Joey Veerman. This was Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman's first mistake; due to swapping an attacker for another central midfielder, Simons moved to the right wing, where he is much less effective than when he starts in the middle. The position swap mostly neutered Simons, the Netherlands' most talented player, for the rest of the match. Having Simons more centrally might have also helped in the second half, when England frustratingly slipped into its usual defensive shell, creating about 20 minutes of boring play as both teams just sat back and, seemingly, played to not lose. Koeman's half-time introduction of Wout Weghorst, a Big Lad in comparison to the pacier Donyell Malen, didn't amp up the pace of the match either, as the Dutch were content to just send long balls up to the large striker in hopes of knock-downs.

On the other end, despite scoring, Kane was having one of the worst games I've personally seen him play for England, constantly receiving the ball too far back from goal and losing it under man-to-man pressure. His desire to play some form of hybrid striker-playmaker-midfielder role not only took him out of dangerous spots, but also made it so his teammates lacked space to move and a target to aim for up top. This is where Southgate got it completely and unequivocally right for maybe the first time in this tournament: Despite Kane being both the side's captain and all-time leading scorer, for a second consecutive match Southgate subbed out the Bayern Munich forward, this time in the 81st minute in favor of Aston Villa's Ollie Watkins. Cole Palmer also came in simultaneously for Foden, who had his best game of the tournament but who also would have been a much worse fit next to Watkins.

It was these changes that led to the winning goal, and not just because Watkins hit a tidy finish to score off a Palmer assist. The play that resulted in the goal likely does not happen with Kane and Foden, if the rest of the tournament was to be believed: Palmer picked up the ball and drove forward, always looking to pass, and once Watkins hit a perfect line-breaking diagonal run into the box, the Chelsea man slotted a spot-on pass that allowed Watkins to choose whether he wanted to turn onto his left foot or continue past with his right. After a brief stutter, Watkins did the latter and curved a ball back to the far post, going under Stefan de Vrij's open legs and into the goal. It's funny what playing a striker who isn't trying to multi-task can do for an attack, and Watkins both made the correct choice and hit a beautiful finish to reward Southgate for the brave substitution.

Will Southgate be brave again on Sunday, facing by far the best team his English side has come up against all tournament? Spain will pose certain questions that no one else has so far, such as whether an aged Kyle Walker and a strictly non-defensive Kieran Trippier are the right fullback pairing to deal with Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams, as well as what to do with what is sure to be Spanish supremacy in the midfield.

Could Southgate bench one of his four attackers in order to bring on a third midfielder and open up space up top, or at least tell Bellingham to play more like the No. 8 he was at Borussia Dortmund? Could he start Luke Shaw in place of Trippier, to deal with Lamine Yamal on Spain's right? Maybe, but that type of flexibility is not Southgate's M.O. It's more likely he trots out the same lineup against Spain, with the hopes of keeping it close or, in the best case scenario, building up a lead before subs come in. However, Southgate showed on Wednesday that he can make positive changes even at the expense of two of his biggest names, so unless Spain can blow out England early enough for it to not matter, it's likely that the English will be able to rely on key impact substitutes and their individual brilliance to try to, finally, win another trophy. For now, though, Southgate made the better adjustments in his match-up of (few) wits against Koeman, and England is back in the Euro finals because of it. Whatever happens Sunday, not even the biggest haters of his style—me, anyone with a passing knowledge of soccer, seemingly the entirety of the English fandom—can take away that he got it completely right on Wednesday.

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