Southgate's 'streetwise' England learn how to grind out wins

DÜSSELDORF, Germany — Welcome to the grind. Anyone expecting England to suddenly turn on the style at Euro 2024 seems destined for an eternal wait.

It may not matter if they keep finding a way like this, but Saturday’s penalty shootout victory over Switzerland following an attritional 1-1 draw was another improvised scramble for answers. The extent to which manager Gareth Southgate is searching for more attacking potency is beginning to raise the question whether Harry Kane is part of the problem or the solution right now.

In one sense, it is absurd to question Kane. The Bayern Munich striker is England’s all-time record goal scorer, a thoroughbred proven on the biggest stage and a former World Cup Golden Boot winner. He is the captain, the talisman and Southgate’s trusted lieutenant.

It would frankly be Southgate’s biggest call yet in a litany of surprising calls if Kane was dropped for Wednesday’s semifinal in Dortmund. But then there is the evidence of your eyes and ears, the sight of him struggling to press Switzerland or to keep up with Bukayo Saka as he burst down the right flank time and again.

Kane had 26 touches in 109 minutes. He attempted ten passes, completing eight. His two shots came in the 22nd and 83rd minutes, the latter blocked.

Southgate confirmed after the match that he substituted his No. 9 in extra-time with cramp. Kane missed Bayern’s final two Bundesliga season with a back problem and speculation persists that he is not completely over it, despite two goals to his name so far.

Of course, Kane is starved of service in a team that is misfiring yet still somehow finding a way to keep nudging themselves over the line. And he has a habit of peaking in the knockout rounds, failing to score in the group stage at Euro 2020 before netting in the round of 16, the quarterfinals and the semifinals.

But it was noticeable that Southgate chose to play up the off-field contribution Kane has made when his quiet evening in Düsseldorf was put to the England boss.

“He is leading the team incredibly well,” Southgate said. “He is such a positive influence around the camp. He is guiding the young players through everything the squad have had to deal with in the early stages of the tournament.

“He actually cramped up as he fell off the pitch and we just felt we needed legs. Of course, we knew with [Ivan] Toney that if we ended up going to penalties, we had a regular penalty taker on the field.

“Another feather in the cap in the team that they’ve won a shootout without our record goal scorer.”

It would be premature to compare Kane with Cristiano Ronaldo and the conversation around whether he was a help or hindrance at these finals given they are nine years apart in age, but at the same time, England’s No. 9 is in the starting eleven on reputation alone at the moment. Toney and Ollie Watkins offer intriguing alternatives beyond cameo roles.

Of course, the collective malaise doesn’t help. England continue to resemble a diamond-encrusted, scrambled Rubik’s Cube.

Southgate stands on the touchline furiously shuffling the options in search of a clearly defined side. That led him to rip up the 4-2-3-1 shape he has been working on for the past few years and revert to a back three, last used in a competitive match three years ago in the Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy.

That shape brought a semblance of first-half control but Switzerland were the better team in the second half — captain Granit Xhaka pulled the strings in midfield — and deserved their lead when Breel Embolo poked in at the far post on 75 minutes.

Those familiar concerns about Southgate’s in-game management rose to the fore again as he deliberated changes, only to make them after falling behind. In defence of him and England, though, their response was impressive, Saka firing in brilliantly from the edge of the box five minutes later.

But that was their first shot on target, following on from the 95-minute wait to register one against Slovakia in the previous round. And Switzerland were the better side in extra-time as England dug in, defending deeper and trying to stay compact with limited ambition.

The fact they were seemingly content with penalties is in actual fact testament to the remarkable transformation Southgate has engineered in their approach to shootouts, long regarded as the most prominent scar on the nation’s footballing heart.

All five takers — Saka, Toney, Cole Palmer, Jude Bellingham and Trent Alexander-Arnold — were absolutely clinical. Toney didn’t even look at the ball. Jordan Pickford saved Switzerland’s first penalty, from Manuel Akanji, and pictures quickly surfaced of the England goalkeeper’s water bottle revealing plans for each taker.

It read: “Akanji — dive left.” Pickford did, made the save and England won.

England have exited seven tournaments on penalties. They lost the last Euros final in a shootout, but Southgate has masterminded three other wins.

“We think we’ve got a good process,” Southgate said. “We’ve been in four, we’ve won three. Of course, we got absolutely crucified for the one we lost, and that’s always going to be the case because it’s outcome based.

“We refined that process a little bit, we have more regular penalty takers in the squad now than then and more that have been in shootouts. But I think we’ve had a really calm process.”

England are still alive in this tournament. And aside from that fundamental, over-arching positive, there were more niche storylines offering hope they could win their first Euros.

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Is it time to put ‘England are bad at penalties’ to bed?

Steve Nicol says the quality of penalty takers that England have means that they should no longer fear penalty shoot-outs.

Saka’s redemption for his Euro 202 shootout miss. Ezri Konsa looked composed at centre-back in replacing Marc Guéhi, who will now return from suspension for the semifinals.

And for Southgate himself, his record is one of sustained deep tournament runs that stands as an outlier in England’s history, regardless of the criticism their stifled performances continue to attract.

“We weren’t savvy, we weren’t tournament wise,” Southgate said of past England sides. “This group are different. They keep possession for longer periods.

“We haven’t always got it right. The games that we’ve ultimately gone out, people can always look back and highlight things, but, in general, we’ve shown the resilience that the teams that win tournaments have had for years and years.

“Italy, France, Spain, you know, it’s not all pure football. It’s other attributes that they’ve had, and we’re showing a little bit more of that streetwise nature.”

The grind goes on for a few more days at least.

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