Gareth Southgate spared ‘Iceland moment’ but Slovakia scare must act as wake-up call for dismal England

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

And that is why it is always worth keeping a player like Jude Bellingham on the pitch.

England’s talisman delivered an iconic tournament moment with a 95th-minute equaliser against Slovakia to ensure Gareth Southgate’s side avoided an historic embarrassment here in Gelsenkirchen.


Bellingham’s overhead kick from 12 yards rescued a draw for England at the death, helping to set up a Euro 2024 quarter-final against Switzerland next Saturday and ensuring this stuttering team lives for another round in Germany.

The question is whether the 21-year-old’s moment of brilliance can ignite England’s dismal campaign and prove the catalyst for them to finally look more like a coherent and dangerous team.

The equaliser effectively broke Slovakia’s resistance, leaving them out on their feet, and Harry Kane followed up with a winner in the first minute of extra-time.

Southgate has faced calls since after the second group game against Denmark to drop Bellingham or move him deeper, which would potentially free up space in the side for Phil Foden to move to No10.

He has stubbornly resisted making any changes to his preferred XI, however, with the exception of the troublesome second spot in midfield, which was impressively filled by Kobbie Mainoo here.

Southgate has instead suggested that his best players need to be accommodated at all costs, and admitted on the eve of this game that he has had “to ignore external advice” to make changes.

As England laboured dismally against Slovakia, the case for taking Bellingham out of the side and turning to one of his array of exciting options on the bench only grew stronger.

Again, Southgate resisted, leaving an exhausted-looking Belllingham on the field as the clocked ticked down. But with England increasingly desperate, he met Marc Guehi’s flick with a sublime piece of skill.

This match, though, should not go down as a vindication of Southgate’s approach.

If anything, England found a way to win in spite of the manager, who was slow to make changes and persisted for too long with a system which was plainly not working.

Admittedly, Southgate’s eventual substitutions were effective, with Ivan Toney, who was introduced in the 94th-minute, cleverly heading across goal for Kane’s winner.

The England captain, who had been left in a pocket of space in the box, powered a header past the Slovakian goalkeeper.

Cole Palmer and Eberechi Eze, the manager’s other changes in normal time, were lively, if late to the party.

Really, though, the more England progress through the rounds of the European Championship, the less likely they look to actually win it.

Until Bellingham’s divine intervention, they were as bad with and without the ball as they have been in any major tournament failure over the last 20 years - unbalanced, unstructured, lopsided and lacking an obvious game-plan or identity.

In common with the infamous defeat to Iceland at the same stage of Euro 2016, England did not look like a team who knew how to score, let alone fashion a good chance, after Ivan Schranz deservedly poked Slovakia in front after 25 minutes.

The closest they came to an equaliser before a late push was Foden’s disallowed goal at the start of the second half, which was chalked off for an offside against the winger.

It was remarkable that Southgate took so long to turn to his bench after the poverty of England’s first-half display and, when Palmer was finally introduced in the 64th-minute, it was an enforced change, Kieran Trippier limping off following a heavy challenge.

Even the way England played in extra-time, when they should have had the experience and quality to keep the ball and hold an exhausted opponent at arm’s length, was alarming.

They sat off after Kane’s 91st-minute winner, inviting pressure and allowing Slovakia chances to fling dangerous balls into the penalty box.

Nothing about England’s performance as a team was suggestive of a side which has the quality to win the competition - or even progress past the Swiss in Dusseldorf next Saturday - and yet they plainly have spirit and clutch players in Bellingham and Kane.

Southgate now needs this performance to be a catalyst for improvement and a wake-up call.

England were seconds from going out to a side ranked 45th in the world, which would have been a sad way for the manager's nearly eight years in the job to the end.

As it is, they are through to the last-eight of a fourth consecutive major tournament under the 53-year-old and remain in the kinder half of the draw, with another opponent ahead that they will be expected to beat, in spite of how well the Swiss have played in Germany.

They must dramatically improve, and must take this game as a warning rather than a vindication.

Southgate was right about one thing, however: Bellingham needs to be on the pitch if England are to have any hope of kicking on, and one result from the evening will be an end to the discourse around his place in the team.