England Did Not Fail on Penalties to Beat Switzerland to the Semi-Finals of Euro 2024

Euro 2024
England beat Switzerland (Credit: Getty Images)

As everything in England has been inexplicable in this tournament, perhaps one can venture the absurdity that Gareth Southgate, so singled out, had been seeking a certain redemption outside the game, in the sort of laboratory of penalties, where he lost the final of the last European Championship against Italy at his home in Wembley. Thus England reached the semi-final, where they faced the Netherlands, without making any progress in the game, seeing themselves again close to the precipice by Switzerland with the clearest ideas and arguments until the end of extra time, when Shaqiri sent an Olympic corner onto the crossbar.

Southgate, as predictable as he was frustrating for the English, maintained almost everything that he had crashed into in 2021, all the play-off rituals, even bringing on a taker from the bench in the final minutes. However this time he gave Trent Alexander-Arnold more time than Rashford and Sancho at Wembley. Then it went wrong, in Dusseldorf all his takers were on target, including Saka, tortured by that final, and Pickford guessed the first, that of Akanji, the City center-back.

So England continues, once again lulled to sleep until they are on the edge, once again with rudimentary mechanisms in the face of panic, balls into the box and corners celebrated as goal-scoring opportunities. And so does Southgate, who linked his position to winning the title, and who reached the quarter-finals in the centre of criticism. Under him, the team was worse than its parts. Suggestions kept appearing about how he should organize his troops. These ideas were so often spun that it was taken for granted that he would break with the framework he had established. So much was chewed over that Southgate did something astonishing.

The most predictable man in football, according to his critics, and also some supporters, managed to surprise by doing the same thing. The English federation gave UEFA a “tactical” line-up with a set-up of pieces that responded to the latest murmurings: three center-backs (Walker, Stones, and Konsa) and Saka as a left wing-back, far from his natural habitat up front on the right. If England’s game was as rough on the eye as the previous ones, at least the experiment would be entertaining. But no. When the players took to the field, they were where they always were. And that, as always, was Southgate’s greatest correction to himself. That was also what worked best for him, within the usual flatness.

Saka stayed in his right-hand corner, and from there he was the most dangerous part of England, the most unpredictable part of the predictable Southgate. The Arsenal winger was very much like that: the Arsenal winger. An indecipherable dancer for Aebischer and Rodriguez, even when they went for him in pairs. Saka showed footwork, and hip swing, and escaped into the area. And there his efforts dissolved: his teammates could not read him either, and they did not go for the back pass.

Otherwise, England was just like England at the Euros, tangled up with the ball. They didn’t have a single shot on goal in the entire first half. The crowd was content with flashes of Saka and moments when Bellingham stretched out his long stride. But nothing: fleeting bubbling.

Switzerland lived with few worries. They did not feel threatened nor did they need to knead the ball to get close to Pickford. Xhaka, expelled from the Premier League and revived with Xabi Alonso at Leverkusen, orders with the pass, and also after releasing the pass. He is a conductor of an orchestra who hands over the ball and, with his arm extended, gives instructions on what to do with it. The team orbits around the partnership he forms in the center with Freuler, from which the game emanates: flashes to the wings, very little rhetoric, always on the lookout for runs into the area.

The ticking clock made it clear that patience was not the solution to England’s logjam; it led to a huddle, a certain languor. As England matured, Switzerland found more opportunities to run on the counter, more times close to Pickford. Embolo twice fired from inside the area into the hands of the goalkeeper when Southgate’s team had not yet managed to get a shot on target.

Nor had he done so when Schar found Ndoye in the area, who turned and put in a cross-field pass into that deadly zone between the defenders and the goalkeeper. Stones deflected it slightly and the rebound was picked up at the far post by Embolo, who pushed in the goal and unleashed a reaction from Southgate. Three changes at once: Palmer, Shaw, and Eze; for Mainoo, Trippier, and Konsa. It is difficult to say that it was the result of the manager’s spasm, but two minutes after that little revolution, and only five after Embolo’s goal, England equalized.

The goal was a surprise of the sort that Southgate had made with a false start. Saka scored from his spot, the position that was not going to be his, but where he has dazzled in the Premier League. From the right, he unleashed a left-footed shot across the far post. A goal like those scored by the Arsenal winger. England’s first shot on target. The only one in 90 minutes.

England’s surge only made it to extra time. And just barely: in added time, when Ndoye was about to head in at the far post, Embolo touched the center and defused the danger. They escaped there, they escaped in extra time, and they came out alive in the penalties that had tormented them.

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