Bellingham, Kane save England but issues remain for Southgate

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — Maybe it is better to be lucky than good. Make no mistake, England got out of jail against Slovakia after winning 2-1, saved by a moment of individual brilliance rather than any coherent game plan.

The obituaries were written, the formal announcement of Gareth Southgate’s departure as head coach drafted in the minds of those Football Association employees responsible.

Anger rained down from the stands as beleaguered England fans watched their team fall into a state of paralysis while undertaking the task of replying to Ivan Schranz‘s 25th-minute opening goal, a fourth consecutive display of this type at Euro 2024 and one nearly triggering their early exit from a tournament many expected them to win.

Then out of darkness, came light.

Jude Bellingham rescued this lost cause with a magical strike, his 95th-minute overhead kick forcing extra time, a minute into which, Harry Kane nodded in to complete a remarkable turnaround and set up a quarterfinal with Switzerland in Dusseldorf on Saturday.

So all is well again, right? Hardly.

England will take great self-belief from digging themselves out of this hole, but when the emotion of such a dramatic turnaround subsides, any suggestion that they have suddenly stumbled on a winning formula does not survive even the most basic analysis. The two goals owed plenty to good fortune.

Kyle Walker hurled the ball into the box with what Southgate described afterwards as “an old-fashioned long throw,” Marc Guéhi flicked it on and Bellingham produced a bona fide moment of magic. For all the talk of playing out from the back, intricate patterns of play and tactical fluidity, that moment was England’s first shot on target in a dour 95 minutes against the second-lowest team left in Euro 2024.

And the winning goal? Three substitutes combined to find Kane, but hardly in pre-planned fashion. Cole Palmer‘s free kick was punched out by Slovakia goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka. Eberechi Eze drove a shot into the ground but found Ivan Toney, who intelligently headed the ball back into an area where Kane was able to pounce from close range.

England are still alive and they deserve credit for showing such resolve, but they continue to resemble a team scrambling desperately for answers, making things up on the fly in the hope something sticks: Bukayo Saka at left-back or Toney on for the final minute of normal time. The two goals were a euphoric period of temporary transformation. What came before and after it, however, is the more meaningful takeaway and alarmingly similar to the disappointing level for which they have been rightly criticised to this point.

“There was a spirit and a togetherness that has been building,” Southgate said. “We have had a lot of problems to solve through this whole lead in to the camp, through the tournament.

“We’re putting a plaster over different things, giving young players opportunities and somehow finding a way. I can imagine how everyone is going to react to that even though we’ve won. But we are still in there. The one thing that can’t be questioned is the desire, the commitment, the character.”

Defender John Stones claimed afterwards that England “can take the handbrake off and show ourselves,” perhaps inadvertently referencing the inherent caution with which Southgate is often accused of stifling a squad blessed with such attacking talent.

“Tonight was an example of cup football,” Southgate said in response. “Sometimes it is about character, heart, spirit. We didn’t defend well at the start and we didn’t play through their press, which was really well organised. We struggled to break that first line of pressure. That wasn’t the handbrake. We had a problem we couldn’t solve: getting the ball into the second line of the pitch.

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Why Switzerland will give England a problem in the Euro 2024 quarters

Mark Ogden debates how Gareth Southgate will approach England’s Euro 2024 quarterfinal vs. Switzerland.

“There’s a big difference and the game against the Swiss will throw completely different tactical problems.”

There is indeed a big difference, but the result is the same: an unbalanced team struggling to move the ball with any conviction. Southgate can draw on some positives. Kobbie Mainoo thoroughly vindicated his inclusion in midfield and will surely retain his place on Saturday.

Palmer, Eze and Toney were all useful additions, but Southgate’s reluctance to change was the source of much irritation in the stands. The 53-year-old had made just one change, Palmer for Kieran Trippier, until the 84th-minute despite little sign of England finding an equaliser. Guehi’s early yellow card — entirely the fault of Trippier, whose under-hit pass left him lunging in on David Strelec — means he will be suspended against Switzerland and a new centre-back partnership must be found in the coming days.

That only adds to the workload for Southgate, whose problems are hardly easing as England progress.

And the volume on those murmurs of discontent towards him was increasing with every passing minute before Bellingham’s sudden intervention, the focus once again on Southgate’s in-game management and fears that extracting the best from this talented group is simply a question he cannot answer.

But all of that subsides for another day. It is another indication of the fortune Southgate has enjoyed alongside the tangible forward strides made in his eight-year tenure that England’s half of the draw presents them with a quarterfinal away from France, Germany, Portugal or Spain.

His luck has not run out yet and there is still time — just — to get it right.