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England Was Finally Exciting, Still Not Actually Good

Jude Bellingham of England, scores his team's first goal with a acrobatic kick during the UEFA EURO 2024 round of 16 match between England and Slovakia at Arena AufSchalke on June 30, 2024 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Oliver Hardt - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

In one sense, England's European Championship run is going according to plan. The Three Lions are undefeated in Germany this month, and advanced to the quarterfinals with a thrilling 2-1 victory over Slovakia on Sunday. The path to a second consecutive Euro final is as clear as it could be, with England solidly the strongest team left, on paper, on its side of the bracket.

Of course, in another sense, England has been a disaster. I won't spend too much time rehashing the side's issues, save to say that all the same ones were still there against Slovakia, which almost submarined England's tournament right when it was supposed to start in earnest. It's not just that Slovakia scored first, or that the 45th-ranked team in the world had the fifth-ranked one on the ropes for most of 90 minutes. It's the sense that England needs to defeat not just its opponent on any given day, but it also needs to beat its own disposition and execution for long enough to advance. For a team with as much talent as anyone in the world, that's an embarrassing position to be in, even if it hasn't bit England in the ass just yet.

It probably should have, though, and this would be a much different article if not for England finally managing to bring some excitement into its games, perhaps not on purpose. Slovakia already had one earth-quaking upset in this tournament, having beaten third-ranked Belgium in its tournament opener. If the rest of the group stage didn't quite go Slovakia's way—a 2-1 defeat to Ukraine and a 1-1 draw against Romania saw Slovakia advance as one of the four best third-place sides, drawing England in the process—it had very recently proven its ability to topple supposedly better teams, and the Falcons played like it on Sunday.

Slovakia's gameplan appeared rather simple: Give the English players control of the ball and the game, and let them beat themselves. Given how turbulent England is going forward right now, with a midfield double pivot struggling to find the front four in space, that's a solid defensive strategy. Going the other way, Slovakia targeted Kyle Walker on England's right side, and the Manchester City defender—ostensibly in the lineup at this tourney over Trent Alexander-Arnold due to his defensive skills—was in hell. Slovakia constantly had Lukas Haraslin breaking out behind Walker before crossing it back towards the box. The plan worked. The better chances in the first 25 minutes belonged to Slovakia, and England went the entire first half without a shot on target.

Slovakia's commitment to not just sitting back but actually bringing the game to England finally paid off in the 25th minute, though the opener did not come on Walker's side. Instead, it was Marc Guéhi who was victimized. The Crystal Palace defender lost out on a header from a long ball, then forgot to track the run of Ivan Schranz in the ensuing build-up, allowing David Strelec to slot the ball past the backline. Schranz almost miscontrolled the pass, but was able to get enough on it to send it past Jordan Pickford and in:

If the period before the goal was to Slovakia's credit, perhaps more so than to England's demerit, the ensuing minutes were all about the failures of the English. This was the same England side that struggled so mightily in the group stage, where Southgate's only attempts to shake things up has been to cycle through yet another midfield partner for Declan Rice. This time, Manchester United teenager Kobbie Mainoo drew the assignment. Elsewhere, the front four continuously got in each other's ways, and Harry Kane was forced at times to retreat behind the midfield line to receive the ball in any kind of space. It was just as dire to watch as it has been, only leavened by how funny it was to see England flounder, playing the same conservative style while down 1-0 in a knockout round.

If that was just a bit funny, then Southgate not making any substitutes at halftime was criminal. It took until the 66th minute for him to finally change things up, when his hand was forced after a Kieran Trippier injury. In came Cole Palmer. To compensate, Southgate had the brilliant idea to move star right winger Bukayo Saka to left back, a position he hasn't played in years and clearly does not enjoy. Unsurprisingly, it did not work whatsoever. In the 15 minutes after Palmer came in, England still looked lifeless and lost in attack, managing still no shots on target. Time looked like it was going to run out on England, and maybe that was for the best to finally force some change.

But, again, England really does have a simply unbelievable amount of talent, and sometimes, talent alone can cancel out terrible performances and a worse gameplan. In this case, that brilliance came from perhaps the poster child of this uneven England tournament: Jude Bellingham. The Real Madrid midfielder was the best player in La Liga last year, and he was meant to lead England on its quest to its first international title since 1966. Despite scoring one of England's two goals in this tournament before Sunday—the early opener that provided the winning margin against Serbia in the first match—Bellingham has been as much to blame for the listless attack, as his presence as a way-too-forward no. 10 has pushed Kane out of his comfort zone. The congestion in the center is the problem for England, and it will remain so as long as the quartet of those two, plus Phil Foden and Saka, start together.

Still, though, there's no denying that Bellingham is capable of incredible things, and if he waited until the final 90 seconds of regular time to show that off, well, it was just for the drama of it all. With the six minutes of second-half stoppage time winding down, England had a throw-in, taken long by Walker. His chuck found Guéhi, who was able to knock it on and set the stage for Bellingham to whip out an overhead kick of such audacity and flawless execution that it felt destined to happen, even as England limped to the finish line:

As usually happens when a favorite equalizes late against a tired underdog, Bellingham's stunner served as the de facto game-winner. It's a hard task to defend against a team of England's caliber, with so many players who can score as quickly and ridiculously as Bellingham did, for as long as Slovakia did it in the first place. To ask those players to do it for 30 more minutes, after losing out on history by 90 seconds, and with only the hope of winning in penalties on the horizon ... it's too much to ask. And so, just two minutes after the start of extra time, a Cole Palmer free-kick cross was cleared out of the box, only to get blooped back in and onto Ivan Toney's head. Toney, who was subbed on just before Bellingham's goal, was able to flick it on to a wide open Kane in the center of the penalty box, and after missing two golden chances in regular time, England's all-time leading scorer did not miss a third:

It was all over then. Slovakia was just too tired and England too comfortable sitting back and defending. Slovakia had some chances, and maybe one specific one should have gone in: a whipped cross to the far post by Laszlo Benes found Peter Pekarik, whose knock-on somehow sailed over the bar from point blank range. But, in my heart of hearts, I knew it was over the second Bellingham hit his trademark pose in the 95th minute of what was almost England's worst loss ever at an international tournament. Instead, Southgate and Co. live to fight another day.

Perhaps this will be the wakeup call that England needed to fulfill its potential. Or, perhaps, Switzerland will prove that a coherent system and just enough individual talent is a better combination than whatever it is Southgate is has been trying and failing to implement all tournament. Given that Southgate has not been particularly flexible over the last eight years, I wouldn't be surprised if Switzerland steamrolls England like it did Italy. But Bellingham showed that England can still survive, even if it's not particularly encouraging to see how that survival comes into existence.

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