• England face the Netherlands in the semi-finals of Euro 2024 on Wednesday
  • The days of glorious failure have gone for England - they need to lift the trophy
  • LISTEN to It's All Kicking Off! EUROS DAILY: Will England have a ‘lightbulb moment’ and stop muddling through? 

They are six summers old now, but some of the images from the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup in Russia remain fresh in the mind.

It was to be a hurdle Gareth Southgate’s new England could not quite overcome.

Still, though, it is possible to recall Kieran Trippier’s early free-kick that gave England the lead against Croatia in their first tournament semi-final for 22 years. It is easy to think back to that unusual surge of optimism that remained, even after a 2-1 defeat in extra time.

Southgate, dressed in the waistcoat that had become his trademark, was cheered from the field at the Luzhniki Stadium by England fans. Many players didn’t want to leave. As tournament newcomers such as Harry Maguire leaned on barriers talking to their families about their great adventure, it felt like an awakening, the start of something new and vibrant and, as it turned out, that is exactly what it was.

Now here we are, approaching the end of the Southgate era after almost eight years. England play in another semi-final tonight against the Netherlands. It is the third in four tournaments under him, but the gratitude of old has withered and a sense of entitlement — the curse of English football for so long — has returned.

There will be no free pass for Southgate and his players if they lose tonight.

They haven’t played well in Germany, haven’t scored goals and haven’t entertained. They have muddled through.

Once upon a time that would have been enough, but not any more. So here in Dortmund it will be death or glory for England.

There is no longer any middle ground for this manager and his players, and Southgate even nodded to that himself as he spoke about the psychological challenges his team have faced since starting their tournament with an uncertain win over Serbia in Gelsenkirchen.

‘For me it’s been a fascinating experience to see the team fearful in the opening part of this tournament,’ said Southgate.

‘They were almost concerned about what could go wrong. We haven’t had that for a few years. In Russia, winning a knockout game was the first target and it felt that everything from that moment on was a bonus.

‘Here we definitely spoke about it. When you can sense that feeling you need to confront it. It’s no use avoiding it and hoping it will go away. In the end we had to grind it out on the pitch.

‘The Denmark game, the point we got there, there’s a picture of the players looking distraught afterwards. They’ve got a point that essentially ensured us of qualifying. Every other team was celebrating with their fans and we were on our knees.

‘So I had to correct how the players were viewing things. But, of course, that feeling was being reinforced so vocally and actively outside and I think they were picking up on that too much. Maybe it was expectation. Maybe it was a lot of external things as well. But now they’re very much in a “what’s achievable, what’s possible” sort of mindset.

‘We saw a truer reflection of ourselves in the last game and there was a lot within that to build on and take into the game tomorrow.’

Southgate has been as candid about his feelings over the last few days as he has for a while. After the quarter-final win over Switzerland, he admitted he was using criticism as fuel.

Where many people will disagree with Southgate is regarding the supposed uptick in performance he feels he saw in the last game.

England were marginally better on the back of a change in formation in the first half, but lost control from that point on and did not have a shot on target until Bukayo Saka equalised.

‘The first thing is we’ve got this game ahead of us and we’ve got to get that right,’ said Southgate when asked if he was worried about the lack of entertainment in his team’s football.

‘We always want to play as well as we can. In the tournament there have been 13 goals fewer than the last Euros. A lot of teams have been really well organised. We’ve played three teams that play a back five.

‘In our sport, sometimes you play as well as the opponent allows you and we know we didn’t start the tournament well.’

English football has history with the Dutch and Southgate has been part of it. He played in the team that beat them 4-1 in Euro ’96 and was manager when his team lost to them in the semi-final of the 2019 Nations League.

‘Their coach Ronald Koeman was somebody I admired very much as a player,’ said Southgate. ‘We didn’t really see centre backs stepping out with the ball and spraying passes around.

‘I know we see that more in the English game now, but that was unique when I was growing up.

‘I’ve got huge admiration for the Netherlands as a country. They have a fairly small population, but their football culture for decades has been phenomenally good.’

Koeman’s team have also had difficulties. They lost to Austria in their final group game and finished third.

But they have improved in a way that England have not, beating Romania 3-0 and coming from a goal down to beat Turkey in the quarter-finals. It feels as if England will have to improve to win. They have relied on individual moments and have not been helped by their manager’s hesitancy to make substitutions.

Southgate has only made changes before the 66th minute twice in Germany. Conor Gallagher replaced Trent Alexander-Arnold in the 54th minute against Denmark, while Gallagher made way for Kobbie Mainoo at half-time against Slovenia.

Southgate said: ‘It depends how the team are playing and there are moments where you feel they are playing well and you can force a change.

‘But if the team are in the rhythm of the game and individuals are playing well, you can put freshness on or you can put a different sort of problem to the opponent, but we’ve still got faith in the players.

‘Sometimes you feel you are still posing a threat, controlling a game, and I’ve seen a lot of other big managers hold their nerve and wait a really long time to make changes. Everybody is going to have a different view on that.’

There has been a feeling since Southgate announced his squad in May that he would live or die by his methods in Germany. That has only grown the further England have progressed. They are close enough to the final now to picture themselves walking out at the Olympiastadion.

If England’s players find something hitherto beyond them here, then they should beat an imperfect Dutch team burdened by its own pressures from home.

The days of glorious failure are gone, though. England’s play at Euro 2024 has not been anywhere near good enough for that. They must go big, or go home quietly.

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2024-07-09T22:00:30Z dg43tfdfdgfd