England muddle through but Southgate must learn from 'woeful' display

It is the middle of the second half in Gelsenkirchen and, days after stating that putting him at left-back is not a solution, Bukayo Saka has been put at left-back. An injury to Kieran Trippier has prompted the change. Only Trippier hasn’t actually gone off yet.

The sight of a bewildered Saka briefly playing behind Trippier, having been called over from the right wing prematurely, summed up the weirdness of this England performance against Slovakia. Weirder still was that, somehow, through all the chaos, it ended in victory.

England are heavily indebted to the brilliance of Jude Bellingham for that. His stunning, stoppage-time bicycle kick sent the game to extra-time, to be followed, almost immediately, by a headed winner from Harry Kane, set up by 94th-minute substitute Ivan Toney.

But all the questions that hung over their spluttering Euro 2024 campaign before the game remain. How can a team containing so much attacking talent offer so little threat? Why is Gareth Southgate so reluctant to change it? Where is Luke Shaw?

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Sam Allardyce was full of praise for substitute Ivan Toney after his headed assist for Harry Kane’s winning goal

Relief is the word of the day,” surmised Sky Sports‘ Gary Neville after the final whistle. “We have been very, very lucky. We were woeful and we have been woeful for four games now.”

Southgate rightly praised the character shown in coming from behind in such dramatic circumstances. England looked finished, without even a shot on target, let alone a goal, before Bellingham made his sublime intervention from a hopeful long throw.

But random acts of brilliance are not to be relied upon. England’s presence in the last eight, where they will face Switzerland, is a cause for celebration. The manner in which they achieved it, though, requires major examination. England should be better than this.

The same problems that dogged the side during the group stage remained against Slovakia – the sterile possession, the complete lack of threat on the left side, the general lack of service to Kane – but then that is hardly surprising given the team was largely the same.

England scraped through to the quarter-finals
Jude Bellingham enjoys the victory with Declan Rice after the game

Across England’s four games, and despite their turgid performances, save for the first half-hour or so of the opening win over Serbia, Southgate has made only two line-up changes.

The first, when he brought Conor Gallagher into midfield for Trent Alexander-Arnold against Slovenia, was abandoned at half-time. The second, when he turned to Kobbie Mainoo against Slovakia, was welcome but never likely to shift the dial dramatically on its own.

Southgate insisted before the Slovakia game that he was wary of “losing continuity”. But that, surely, is precisely what he should have been striving for after such an unconvincing group stage. Instead, England performed much as they have done all tournament.

England have made the most passes at Euro 2024 and yet rank 10th for shots and 14th for shots on target
England have made the most passes at Euro 2024 and yet rank 10th for shots and 14th for shots on target

“All of the top managers are gamblers, on the pitch and off the pitch,” said Roy Keane as he bemoaned another conservative Southgate team selection ahead of kick-off. “If you keep doing the same things, you keep getting the same results,” added Neville.

And so it proved. Slovakia deserved their lead at half-time having soaked up England’s pressure with ease and cut through them for Ivan Schranz’s opening goal. They were well-drilled. Southgate’s players, by contrast, looked unsure where to move or pass.

Harry Kane looks dejected after England concede a first-half goal to Slovakia
Harry Kane looks dejected after England concede the opener

That theme continued after the break when, within a few minutes of the restart, both Kyle Walker and John Stones could be seen throwing their arms up in despair about the lack of options in front of them. It is becoming hallmark of these listless performances.

It all changed, of course, with Bellingham’s moment of magic in the penultimate minute of stoppage time, his goal hooked past Martin Dubravka from Marc Guehi’s flick and celebrated by mouthing ‘who else?’ before being piled upon by his team-mates.

England fans had only just stopped celebrating when Kane headed home the second after Toney, a last-throw-of-the-dice substitution moments before Bellingham’s equaliser, had nodded Eberechi Eze’s mis-hit shot back across goal following another set-piece.

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Gareth Southgate reflects on England’s shaky victory over Slovakia

Even then, though, England continued to make life difficult for themselves, ceding possession and sinking back into their own half having taken the lead, just as they did, with negative consequences, after Kane’s goal in their second group game against Denmark.

This time, they avoided a repeat of Morten Hjulmand’s equaliser. But it would have been different had Peter Pekarik not blasted over from six yards out. England, having had 74 per cent of the possession in normal time, averaged only 30 per cent after Kane’s goal.

It was another perplexing aspect of a victory that offered few answers. The question now, as England turn their attention towards the quarter-finals, is whether Southgate will finally change things up or prioritise “continuity” again against Switzerland.

Cole Palmer is closed down by Tomas Suslov
Cole Palmer impressed after coming off the bench

If it was not already obvious enough, it has surely become unignorable that Trippier and Phil Foden do not work as a left-sided pairing. How much longer can Southgate limit his squad players to mere cameos as his starters continue to struggle?

Of course, the England boss can point to the fact that, in Bellingham and Kane, two of those who had struggled eventually came up with the match-winning contributions against Slovakia.

But England cannot muddle their way to the trophy performing like this. Even in victory, there are urgent lessons to be learned.

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