16 Conclusions on England 2-1 Netherlands: Watkins, subs, Mainoo, Southgate, *that* penalty and more

Dave Tickner
Ollie Watkins celebrates his late winner for England against Netherlands in the Euro 2024 semi-final
Ollie Watkins celebrates his late winner for England

Well now. England are off to another major tournament final. Just routine these days, isn’t it? Humdrum, almost.

There is a lot to talk about but only one place to begin.


1) We’ll start at the end, shall we? What a f***ing goal that is. Not only a brilliant goal in terms of concept and execution, but also the most Ollie Watkins goal imaginable. It is a goal he has scored again and again for Aston Villa and one he has had about 15 chances to score for England without quite getting it right.

Fair to say he picked his moment. The touch and finish both had to be perfect, as did the weight of pass from his fellow substitute Cole Palmer, but just as important was what happened in the two seconds before all that.

Put simply, Watkins made the kind of run that he alone among England’s strikers could make and which this game, having predictably got tight and tense in the second half, absolutely cried out for.

Harry Kane and Ivan Toney both have many and obvious attributes, but that was a run across tired defenders that neither of them would make and that Watkins makes for fun.

And there is nobody in the England squad more tuned in to that kind of direct, early, precise forward pass than Palmer.


2) The initial keenness of Sam Matterface and Lee Dixon to give the bulk of the credit for that wonderful finish from Watkins to Gareth Southgate rather than the striker was soon politely but firmly put in its rightful place by Ally McCoist, the man in that commentary box who knew of what he spoke, and who was, in fairness, the only one who in that precise moment didn’t have his head on Mars. But there was certainly a valid point in there.

This was a huge moment of vindication for Gareth Southgate during what – as absurd as it seems to say as England reach their first ever major final on foreign soil – has been a desperately difficult tournament for him.

Palmer gets the credit for the pass, Watkins for the touch and finish, but Southgate for putting them out there to deliver a moment that instantly takes its place on English football’s Mt Rushmore.


3) There was an all-too familiar feeling starting to gnaw and nag away as the game went on. England’s first-half brightness had faded, Netherlands were enjoying a far better second half and both control and momentum had been lost.

Southgate was facing the worst-case scenario, one that would have come to be the story of his reign had England lost. A bright start, seeming control, an opponent there for the taking, only for it all to slowly ebb away after the half-time team-talk.

Instead, he made the bold double substitution that was required. It was obvious that Kane needed to be replaced, but obvious and easy are not the same thing. And Phil Foden as the man to make way for Palmer was far less clear cut. And while it’s easy to say now that Watkins was the right man for this particular moment, Toney has been the striker with the buzz around him in recent days.

It would have been all too easy to go down that path. Few would have criticised it. In a way, just a shame that we were denied the sight of Southgate really throwing the shackles off by doing a no-look substitution of Toney for Watkins with 10 minutes left in extra-time for the penalties.

And there must be credit too for the spirit this England side have shown. We can all discuss at great length the events that led them into such moments of grave necessity, but this is a team that has saved itself with goals in the 95th and 80th minutes and now won one in the 91st across three knockout rounds.

That is something that perhaps registers more with opponents than it does with England themselves, but it’s no less important for that. England may still be waiting for that tournament win, but they are becoming one of those really annoying sides that always seem to get over the line, that always seem to find a way.

READ: England player ratings v Netherlands: Watkins a national hero as Foden, Mainoo shine


4) They will have to be better again against a team that has been by some distance the best on show in Germany this summer, and it was slightly disconcerting to hear Southgate offer a slightly negative tone in his assessment of the challenge Spain pose, as well as the slightly alarming fact that he appears to be expecting a more traditional possession-based threat than the youthful 2024 vintage provide.

But England have been improving as the challenges grow tougher. The performance against Slovakia would not have beaten Switzerland. The performance against Switzerland would not have beaten Netherlands. It is very clear that we have not yet seen the best of England at this tournament, yet they will have the chance to show it in the final. Consider that sentence and the fact it can exist in our universe. Cherish it, seriously.


5) Much is obviously and correctly made of Southgate’s record of steering England into the latter stages of major tournaments, with semi-final, final, quarter-final, final an unprecedented run for the Three Lions. But it is worth reiterating just how significant the number of knockout wins involved has become. We know, understand and have used ourselves every stat and ranking going about the calibre of teams England have faced in said knockout matches, but it’s still absolutely mad when you break it down.

Southgate has now led England to two-thirds of their major finals ever, three of their seven semi-finals and has successfully steered the team through more knockout rounds in the last four tournaments – nine – than England managed in total between the World Cup win in 1966 and the Iceland incident of 2016. The changing nature of tournament formats, with last-16 rounds being in the World Cup from 1986 and the last three Euros, is a factor here, of course, but it’s still an astonishing turn of events.

6) The first half in Dortmund was, by some distance, the best England have produced this summer. It was everything fans have been crying out for. Proactive, progressive, fluid and intelligent.

Kyle Walker, nominally England’s right-sided centre-back of three, played much of the first half as an out-and-out right winger, while also popping up at number 10 and everywhere in between.

When Kane dropped deep or pulled wide, others moved to occupy the spaces left vacant.

There was one particularly striking moment when Kane found himself in a crossing position on the right, and both Phil Foden and Kobbie Mainoo were in the penalty area. It was a timely reminder that the problem is not and never has been Kane’s propensity to turn up on the wing or at number 10 or even number eight; the problem is others failing to respond to that and get alongside and beyond him into the spaces created.


7) Mainoo was sensational again, most notably in that first half. Southgate will get and deserve plenty of plaudits, but the mind does still boggle that he could have been watching these boys in training and conclude that first Trent Alexander-Arnold and then Conor Gallagher were better options while lamenting the absence of Kalvin Phillips.

Mainoo is providing everything England’s midfield lacked. It’s weird how much a proper box-to-box midfielder can feel like a throwback now, but that’s where we are. Mainoo’s ability and willingness to get beyond those stationed in front of him, and just as importantly do something useful when he gets there, are so important to England already.


8) Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden also had eye-catching first halves full of energy and menace. Foden genuinely appeared to be enjoying himself, which is not always the case when he has an England shirt on, finding space to work between Dutch defenders and just as importantly without him and Jude Bellingham getting in each other’s way, always a concern when deploying them both in their best position as roaming number 10s.

Saka’s was more the sort of performance we’ve come to expect from him from England, but we just don’t see this version of Foden enough in England colours. The moment where he jinked through a packed penalty area before having a shot cleared off the line by a very busy and involved Denzel Dumfries was mesmerising. No surprise, by the way, that it was Mainoo to be found at the root of it all to instigate the chance.


9) And yet for all the excellence of England’s first-half football, we must acknowledge they were really bloody lucky to find themselves level. The goal they conceded was a bad one from their perspective, Declan Rice robbed all too easily by the far smaller, lighter Xavi Simons.

But from a Dutch perspective it was their own moment of magic, with the finish powerful enough to take Simons off his feet and Jordan Pickford little chance of doing anything much at all about it.

The overall quality of this tournament can be called into question, but we struggle to think of another one with a higher concentration of really brilliant goals. And that’s nice, isn’t it?


10) Now, England’s equaliser. We’ve got here in the end, and we’re afraid we are going to have to talk about this one at some length. It’s just an absolutely bollocks decision, isn’t it? We cannot have it on any level.

Worth bearing in mind here that we consider ourselves fully paid-up members of the ‘penalties should be given more often when strikers are fouled but still ‘get their shot away’’ club. Admittedly, it’s a club that needs a catchier name, sure, but we’re confident we’re on the side of the angels here. It absolutely should not be the case that defenders and goalkeepers have carte blanche to do pretty much anything they like up to and including common assault if the poor bastard trying to score ‘gets his shot away’. It doesn’t apply anywhere else on the field.

We don’t not give free-kicks because a defender ‘managed to get their pass away’ before a lumbering striker careened into them. And it’s the same principle.

But we fear the cause may have suffered lasting damage because this was a truly absurd example to pick as the first one of them ever given as a penalty. It just cannot be a foul for a defender to put his boot where he thinks a shot might be going only for the striker to kick that foot in their follow-through.

To be absolutely clear here, we cast no aspersions on Kane. He is a man with a reputation for, ahem, ‘cleverly’ (always in very sinister scare quotes) winning penalties but this wasn’t even that. He took a shot and his natural, inevitable follow-through hit Dumfries’ boot. It’s just… nothing. It is a complete non-incident. We’ve already got ourselves a sport now where defenders take a risk every time they occupy a position in the penalty area while in possession of arms; we surely cannot add legs to that equation as well.

11) It’s always a brave referee who sticks to his guns after being summoned to the pitchside monitor – especially one with Felix Zwayer’s history – but it would have been entirely justified here. This did not appear to be an incident that meets any definition of clear and obvious error.

While our fondness for Ian Wright is enormous and deep, we simply cannot have his half-time assessment of Dumfries’ actions being ‘reckless’. We’re very much in Gary Neville’s ‘absolute disgrace’ camp on this one. Every defender who has ever lived is putting their foot there.


12) What a penalty from Kane, though. Throw that one in with the collection from the other night and you really do have a magnificent collection of England spot-kicks at this tournament. And it does give us a slightly mischievous thought about the final.

It is very clear that Kane cannot be relied upon to complete 120 minutes in one night at this tournament. We still suspect there was more to his back injury at the end of last season than has quite been let on – certainly, it would explain a great deal. But what Kane can do is take a penalty as well as any man on earth.

After what we saw tonight, with Southgate a (slightly) more liberated and carefree figure, we can’t help but wonder if he’d give any thought to starting Watkins and bringing Kane on. The whack on the foot Kane received in the penalty incident may yet take that decision out of Southgate’s hands.

One thing we will say with absolute certainty, at risk of giving Spurs fans flashbacks, is that you really, really don’t want to be starting a half-fit Harry Kane in a final when you have other, healthier options available. Especially ones who’ve just scored absurdly dramatic injury-time winners to drag you through the semi-final against Dutch opposition.


13) For all England’s fortune and control in that first half, they couldn’t find another goal before the break. And the second half was an instantly different vibe. A Memphis Depay injury just before the break probably inadvertently helped Netherlands regain a foothold, with Joey Veerman providing a much-needed extra body in midfield and cutting off many of England’s most potent supply lines.

Wout Weghorst’s half-time introduction in place of Donyell Malen was an understandable but less effective extension of this tactic. Koeman is an arch pragmatist and having stacked his midfield to bog England down he was in need of someone who could hold the ball up in the now less occupied territory higher up the field until cavalry could arrive.

Weghorst, alas, would deliver the kind of stinker that is always the worry with that kind of player. Instead of making life awkward for defenders, he was generally to be found fouling them or miscontrolling the ball and occasionally both. Things which actually make life easier for defenders. It was hard to escape the idea that Koeman’s approach of packing the midfield and looking for a lumbering big man up top was, while crudely effective until it wasn’t, also very much the kind of major tournament knockout game caper England would attempt in the bad old days before they got to finals all the time.


14) It may still be the initial derangement talking, but we may never stop chuckling at the four substitutes the managers hurled on to the pitch for the closing moments of a game gone mad with the uncommonly rare sight of a minimum of two added minutes at the end of a second half. You don’t see two very often, do you? In the second half? Generally you’re looking at one minute if it’s a blowout and the ref is taking pity, or at least three. You’re right, it’s not the biggest talking point of the night, no… Yeah, of cour… yeah we know there were more significant decisions made by the officials… But you don’t see two minutes of added time, do you? At the end of a second half?


15) This would appear to be as good a way as any of drowning out Sam Matterface’s painfully tortured and obviously scripted post-match monologue.


16) Silver balls are always sh*t. Stop it.