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How Gareth Southgate and England outfoxed Netherlands not once but twice

Gareth Southgate celebrates England's Euro 2024 semi-final win over Netherlands
Gareth Southgate's substitutions against Netherlands were a strong response to his critics - Getty Images/Odd Andersen

England produced their best performance of Euro 2024 to outplay Netherlands for 45 minutes, before Gareth Southgate was rewarded for rolling the dice on Ollie Watkins and Cole Palmer from the bench.

Watkins scored a stunning 90th-minute winner to send England’s men to their first major tournament final on foreign soil, with fellow substitute Palmer providing the assist.

Their combination was an emphatic riposte to those who have argued Southgate is too conservative with his use of substitutions in the biggest games.

Earlier in the semi-final, England finally moved the ball with fluency and incision with Phil Foden and Kobbie Mainoo coming to the fore.

Ronald Koeman made changes to give Netherlands a foothold, before Southgate’s changes delivered late on. This is how England beat the Dutch twice.

Box midfield dominates central area

After the Dutch went ahead through Xavi Simons’ strike in the seventh minute, Southgate’s midfielders managed to seize control of the game by working in a “box” of four players. Mainoo was everywhere on the pitch – taking the ball off Jordan Pickford or driving into the opposition penalty area. Next to him, Declan Rice shifted the ball. But it was further forward where England were doing damage through Jude Bellingham and, in particular, Foden. This was his touch map at half-time.

Phil Foden's first-half touchmap vs Netherlands with England attacking from right to left
Phil Foden's first-half touch map vs Netherlands with England attacking from right to left - Opta

The two No 10s were in their defined pockets either side of Harry Kane and were getting between the lines of the Netherlands’ midfield and defence. There was also room for midfield rotations. In the below example, Mainoo and Foden have swapped over, with the City man deeper alongside Rice and Mainoo in an attacking midfield position.

It was an extremely progressive first 45 minutes from Mainoo, who took most of his touches on the edge of Netherlands’ defensive third despite nominally starting as a deep-lying midfielder. Most of his touches came towards England’s right flank, where they again looked dangerous through Bukayo Saka.

Kobbie Mainoo's first-half touches vs Netherlands with England attacking from right to left
Kobbie Mainoo's first-half touches vs Netherlands with England attacking from right to left - Opta

Weakness and strength of left-side imbalance

England were imbalanced with right-footed Kieran Trippier starting on the left ahead of Luke Shaw. Trippier had a good half defensively but going forward there were times a natural left-back would have added to attacks. He put one cross in with his left but it lacked the pace of his stronger foot. But Saka had so much joy down the other flank – it was clear England should attack down this side. Saka had the beating of Nathan Aké, then created space for others when double-teamed. His run made the penalty, which was won by Kane. Shaw was brought on at half-time to give balance.

Fluidity of 3-4-2-1

Southgate lined up his players 3-4-2-1 at kick-off, which was their same long punt forward after playing back to Pickford. But they were soon in different formations as they attacked. With the Dutch on the ball, they could slip to five at the back with Saka as far back as his centre-back team-mates. But England could also switch easily to four at the back with Kyle Walker and Trippier as orthodox full-backs. England’s best form of defence was attack as going to a flat-back five effectively meant they were man-marking Dutch players, which happened in the early period when a goal was conceded.

Dutch changes

Koeman’s first-half sub, while enforced due to Memphis Depay’s injury, tried to address this with Joey Veerman coming on as an additional specialist midfielder. This put England in more central traffic and stemmed the flow of passes through to Foden in pockets of space.

In another pragmatic move from Koeman, he replaced Donyell Malen with centre-forward Wout Weghorst. That appeared a Dutch admission that they no longer fancied their chances of playing through England’s midfield but it helped. Weghorst offered Netherlands a sense of direction, and he made the ball stick by buying fouls and bringing team-mates into play.

Mainoo and Rice also looked like they were tiring, and the same was true of Kane. England lacked the central energy and drive through the middle that enlivened their first half.

Southgate’s delayed response pays off

The second half was drifting along in a familiar pattern. England were no longer controlling possession and territory, and seemed content to manage the game to extra time.

Following the introduction of Shaw at half-time, Southgate did not make a change until the 80th minute despite seeing Koeman’s subs alter the flow of the game. It seemed to be another case of England’s manager being unresponsive against a major nation at the sharp end of a tournament.

However, Southgate then made perhaps the boldest change of his England reign by hooking captain and record goalscorer Kane for Watkins. He also brought on Palmer for Foden, with many supporters calling for Bellingham to make way instead.

Palmer’s presence on the right side of England’s team with Saka to his outside was crucial to the winning goal. It was a moment that showcased the best of the substitutes’ qualities, with Palmer threading a well-weighted through ball behind the Dutch defence for Watkins’ peeling run. Kane might be the finest striker England have produced, but he would not have scored this goal.