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England: Gareth Southgate hopes reset inspires his squad to Euro 2024 glory

For England's senior players, Gareth Southgate's message in the days leading up to tonight's European Championship semi-final has been a familiar one.

The England boss has reminded his squad — 13 of whom are at a first major tournament — that previous near-misses have no bearing on how they will fare against the Netherlands here tonight.

Southgate's England have come close before — this is their third semi-final in four major tournaments — and in the early stages of Euro 2024 he was "fascinated" to detect a pervasive feeling of fear among the players.

They seemed weighed down by the shirt and driven to distraction by the barrage of outside noise about their staid start to the tournament. Southgate must have wondered if eight years' work was in danger of crashing down around him.

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

"I had to correct how they were viewing things," he said yesterday.

Since the knockout wins over Slovakia and Switzerland, the manager has sensed a new belief in the group, with the players now relishing the opportunity to "change our lives", as Bukayo Saka put it after the quarter-final.

Southgate has nonetheless used the quick turnaround since Saturday's game to urge them to focus solely on what is possible this week. "We don't want to be burdened by what's happened before," he said. "We've got to use this opportunity to change history as a motivation."

At play for England is a first major final on foreign soil, even if Southgate is clear that "we're not happy with a semi-final, our aim is to win it".

The manager's critics claim England have stumbled against the first top team they have faced at the past three tournaments, and though the jury is out on whether Ronald Koeman's Dutch are truly among the continent's best, tonight is also a chance for this team to prove they can beat an established nation.

Such are the standards Southgate is held to, there would inevitably be claims that Holland are also-rans if England win, but there is no questioning their pedigree.

The England squad's mindset may have improved but, to be champions in Berlin on Sunday, performances surely must, too.

It's the players' moment now. Nothing that's gone on in the past, none of that is their fault or concern

Gareth Southgate

Their two knockout wins have demonstrated grit and character, but Saka's equaliser against the Swiss and Jude Bellingham's 95th-minute bicycle-kick to rescue the last-16 tie with Slovakia were their first shots on target in each game.

The manager has excused England's stodginess by pointing out that four of five teams they have faced have used a back-five, and one question is whether Holland, who are wedded to a 4-3-3 system, will be more prepared to attack and create an open game.

There are suggestions in Holland, though, that Koeman will tell his players to sit in and counter-punch, forgetting their reputation for 'total football'. After all, why would any side open up against England, when they have looked so incapable of creating chances?

"That wouldn't be normal for the way Dutch teams play and it's not what we've seen from them," said Southgate, when asked if they could be more reactive. "Equally, Ronald's an experienced coach and he could approach the game in a very different way. We're prepared for anything."

Whatever the set-up, Holland will threaten in the final third, with Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo, a leading contender in a limp race for the Golden Boot, looking dangerous.

Koeman is considering starting hulking centre-forward Wout Weghorst and moving Depay to the wing, while Southgate's big decisions centre on the formation and Luke Shaw's readiness to start.

Harry Kane's form remains up for debate and his battle with Virgil van Dijk should be intriguing, particularly after Manuel Akanji largely marked him out of the quarter-final.

Like Kane, Bellingham has largely delivered in moments so far and England will hope he is inspired by a return to the ground where he spent three happy seasons with Borussia Dortmund.

Fans of a certain generation will not have forgotten Koeman's role in denying England a place at the 1994 World Cup, his cynical foul on David Platt and subsequent goal the decisive moments in a 2-0 qualifying defeat. Koeman became public enemy No1, a mantle briefly taken up by Southgate after Euro '96 but not before he had helped England to a 4-1 win over Holland in the group stage.

But all of that rich history in this fixture is just as irrelevant to Southgate as the defeats to Croatia, Italy and France in the past three major tournaments; he is only focused on what is ahead.

"It's the players' moment now," Southgate said. "Nothing that's gone on in the past, none of that is their fault or concern."