Soccer-Positive England substitutions show Southgate's progress


Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - Semi Final - Netherlands v England - Dortmund BVB Stadion, Dortmund, Germany - July 10, 2024 England manager Gareth Southgate celebrates after the match REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

DORTMUND, Germany (Reuters) - The decisive introduction of Cole Palmer and Ollie Watkins as 80th-minute subs in Wednesday's Euros victory over the Netherlands showed that, even after 101 games in charge, Gareth Southgate's claim that he is "always learning" is spot on.

Southgate was pilloried for his touchline inertia in earlier games, most notably after he waited until the 95th minute to bring on Ivan Toney as England were trailing to Slovakia in the round of 16.

It had been a theme of his entire eight-year tenure that continued at the Euros and the more "outside noise" that developed the more he seemed to dig his heels in.

However, on Wednesday he introduced Luke Shaw for Kieran Trippier at halftime, and though that, if anything, seemed to take the steam out of England's all-action first half approach, Southgate was not done.

Harry Kane, who had scored the early equaliser from the penalty spot and looked the sharpest he has been all tournament, and Phil Foden, who hit the post and had a shot cleared off the line, were hooked.

It was no surprise that Palmer was one of the replacements as he has looked dangerous every time he has come on, but few saw Watkins getting the nod ahead of Toney.

It proved a masterstroke as Palmer delivered the pass and Watkins the unerring finish that won the game and sent England into a second successive Euros final.

In typical fashion, Southgate refused to gloat when asked about the changes, quietly saying "sometimes they work, sometimes they don't".

However, he did reveal some of the thinking that fans and pundits do not immediately see from the outside when he said one of the reasons for opting for Watkins was his ability to press defenders.

With 10 minutes to go and a goal desperately needed, that might not be the first priority in most armchair manager's minds but that is probably why Southgate has now taken his team to three major semi-finals in four tournaments.

ROAR OF APPROVAL

Although the subs finished the game off, England's starting XI had built the base with a fantastic first 45 minutes after which they were desperately unlucky not to be in the lead.

Southgate said the space afforded by the Dutch enabled his team to flourish more than in earlier games against less ambitious teams, but it seemed to be a change of mindset more than tactics that had their fans roaring in approval after weeks of been lulled into bored silence.

Whether it was the manager releasing the tactical handbrake or the players taking the initiative may not be known for few years but the change was startling from the start.

Foden and Jude Bellingham started playing with the same positivity that made them players of the year in England and Spain, while Bukayo Saka shook off the tentative approach of earlier games to attack defenders at pace.

Kane got involved in all the right areas while the indefatigable Declan Rice and ludicrously assured 19-year-old Kobbie Mainoo smothered the Dutch in midfield.

At the back England looked mostly as solid as they have all tournament, though there were a few hairy moments defending corners and free kicks.

Overall there was a swaggering confidence that people had expected from a side made pre-tournament favourites on the back of the obvious depth of talent available.

Critics will again point to their relatively easy path to the final but it is hard to argue against a team who, if the 2020 final shootout loss to Italy can be kindly called a draw, are unbeaten in 13 Euros matches since their shock defeat by Iceland in 2016.

They face a considerable step up in Sunday's final against a Spain team who have almost cruised through via six wins, but Wednesday's England will travel to Berlin brimming with a rediscovered confidence.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips,; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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