16 Conclusions as England win Group C despite themselves: what does Southgate do now?

Dave Tickner
Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham and Marc Guehi react to England drawing 0-0 with Slovenia at Euro 2024
Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham and Marc Guehi try and work it all out

England have won Group C at Euro 2024 and are safely into a knockout game against a third-place lucky loser in the easier half of the draw. Everything must be going pretty, pretty, pretty good for England right now. Or so you’d think.


1) If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Hard enough to write any 16 Conclusions without breaking that rule, really, but particularly tricky for this particular iteration of Gareth Southgate’s England.

But let’s at least try to be positive. That was better, wasn’t it? Than Denmark? All right, it was less sh*t if that’s more palatable to you. No, it was, honestly.

Not in the first half, sure, in which England’s one actual piece of football showed how Slovenia’s disciplined banks of four could in fact quite easily be negotiated in a way England never attempted again after Phil Foden strayed offside before squaring for Bukayo Saka to score. No, the first half was every bit as wretched, as England bravely veered away from their gameplan of being halfway decent for 20 or 30 minutes and then losing their way by cutting out the halfway decent 20 or 30 minutes.


2) But the second half was better. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t perfect. It was still quite bad, really. But there were signs of life that had been absent entirely for most of England’s work up to this point.

Kobbie Mainoo very obviously made a difference and is very obviously a better solution to England’s midfield problems than Conor Gallagher. Sure, this was news to one man and one man only but at least he also knows it now and it matters because he is the England manager.

He instinctively wants to play higher up the pitch, brings greater vision and passing range and with that alone drags the rest of the team forward with him. Harry Kane is less isolated. There are more players in close enough proximity to run beyond him. Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden have another passing option that isn’t 20 yards backwards. It’s better. It’s at least less bad.


3) We’re chucking Foden in the positives column as well. It is all a bit like saying bread is the best part of a vomit and hummus sandwich, but he was comfortably the most involved and threatening of England’s starting front four.

His occasionally visible frustration with Kieran Trippier’s constant slowing of the game and determination to cut in on to that right foot at all times was fully understandable. But he did at least do what so many have wanted him to do in an England shirt and at least make some concerted effort to grab a hold of the game. Too many England games have drifted past him. That was at least not the case here.


4) We remain quite clear that we didn’t actually need another 45 minutes to discover that Conor Gallagher wasn’t the answer. We’re not having a go. He’s a player with plenty of qualities and in the faster paced Premier League environment he’s a huge asset for anyone.

In international football, though, it really does translate as ‘runs around a lot’.

But while it represented another 45 minutes wasted, let’s at least be grateful the change came as early as half-time. Gareth Southgate had painted himself entirely into a corner, sure, where he was either going to be damned for sticking with the plan or damned for coming up with another dud, but the second option at least gave us something to cling to.

Being on Midfield Plan C after two-and-a-half games really isn’t ideal, though. Even if – especially if – it’s actually a lot better than Plans A or B.


5) The other much later second-half changes all improved England as well, albeit each could have come at least 10 minutes earlier. Cole Palmer energised England’s right flank after a difficult night for Bukayo Saka, Trent Alexander-Arnold has never looked happier to be asked to play right-back and Anthony Gordon managed to make England look more of a threat despite his first contribution being to run the ball directly out of play. At least he was hugging the touchline.


6) Mainoo hadn’t been on the pitch 20 minutes before he went past Gallagher’s completed passes total from the first half. Gordon came on after 89 minutes and created more chances (1) than Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham and Gallagher combined. Great fun.

But also kind of a worst-case scenario for Southgate. The substitutions made enough positive impact to show up his initial selection and tactics as flawed, but not enough to actually win the game.

And yet this is still a worst-case scenario that has ended with England winning the group and landing on what is by a hilariously wide margin the easier side of the draw.

Whatever else Southgate may or may not be, he is a master of this very specific and incalculably valuable skill. That is now four tournaments in a row where England have inserted themselves in the easier half of the knockout draw.

The really good news is that England cannot now meet any of Germany, Spain, Portugal or France until the final. The bad news is, well, you’re a long way ahead of us with that one.


7) England really do still have an opportunity to go a long way in this tournament, though. It makes no real sense that this is the case, sure, but it absolutely is. England are not alone in failing to dazzle, and they now have a lot of their fellow dim-bulbs for company in their knockout path.

It’s probably Netherlands next. There would be easier third-place opponents out there, sure, but this is a team that has gone behind to Poland and lost to Austria. Get through that, which England absolutely could/should, and it’s Italy or Switzerland next. Italy scraped past Albania, were lucky to escape with only a 1-0 defeat against Spain and needed the latest of equalisers to draw against a storied Croatia side who have sadly come to the end of their road. Switzerland drew with Scotland, for goodness sake.

The only terrors that lie England’s quarter of the draw are those of their own making after such a wildly unconvincing group stage.


8) What does Southgate do for that last-16 game against Probably Netherlands now, though? We genuinely have no idea. All logic dictates Mainoo simply has to start but we wouldn’t be surprised to see Southgate look at the threat posed by the Dutch and retreat to a safer, more comfortable place.

So much of Southgate’s decision-making at this tournament – even more so than previously – has seemed to be about not exposing a defence full of fault lines. And it makes sense to give this some attention. It is a patched-up defence. But it’s also been largely fine. England have conceded one goal and it was a 30-yard thriker that went in off the post. They haven’t faced a great attack yet, sure, but nor have they been carved apart.

What was striking in the second half here was how Mainoo’s more advanced positioning made England far more threatening in attack than it made them vulnerable in defence. It has to be the way. England’s squad – the one Southgate chose – is one that has far more to gain by gambling on the attack than by gambling on the defence. Yes, the coming tests are likely to be tougher, but England lack the players or the mentality to try and house their way to this title a la Portugal 2016. In the second half there was a nod towards amplifying the sound of England’s strengths rather than turning down the volume on the weaknesses.

We’re talking the tiniest of baby steps here, and we know the caveats about the opposition are there, but it was closer. Southgate went too far in suggesting as he did afterwards that ‘So many things are coming together’ but there were glimpses in that second half, notably from Mainoo and Palmer, of something that might just work.

Yes the level goes up from here on, but Southgate and England cannot step back now.


9) But while Mainoo has put himself forward as a viable solution in midfield, problems still abound.

The defence has been largely untroubled across three games, and that’s been largely down to John Stones and Marc Guehi. It’s gone largely unnoticed given the understandable horror at the dreadful fare being served up in front of them, but it’s a relatively new centre-back combination that has worked better than most might have feared. You’d certainly have taken one goal conceded from three games before a ball was kicked, wouldn’t you?

Apart from one moment of confusion that led to Guehi feeling obliged to collect a counter-stopping yellow that might yet prove ticklish in a game or (hopefully) two’s time, the centre-backs were unfussily untroubled here. Again.


10) One more positive, albeit a speculative one. We’re pretty sure England will look better against better opposition. If anything, Clive, they’ve almost had too much of the ball in these three games.

The defending might not look quite so comfortable in the upcoming game(s), but we’d be even more confident that the attacking play will look far less moribund against teams who aren’t stacking two banks of four in front of Bellingham and asking him to sort them all out if he dares.


11) That concludes what has become, by the end, a really quite desperate attempt to find the positives from a result that – and we’re repeating it as much to drum it into our own mind as anyone else’s – secured top spot in the group for England.

If you can stomach it, read those first 10 conclusions again and remember those are us being all positive and giddily optimistic. What a time to be alive.

Anyway. The centre-backs. They’re fine. The same cannot be said of the full-backs. Kieran Trippier gets some mitigation for not being a left-back, but he’s also now done it often enough that you’d think he might have tried going down the outside on to his left foot at least once out of idle curiosity if nothing else.

He robs England of any natural width on that flank and – more damningly because it cannot be so easily and entirely explained by his right-footedness after so many games there – pace, rhythm and purpose.

His one decent contribution was a right-footed cross that narrowly evaded Gallagher and Kane. Beyond that he was an active hindrance to England’s attacking play, and didn’t really have much to do defensively. Despite which he still managed to get booked for a honking challenge that a disgusted Lee Dixon quite rightly if dare we say it rather cattily described on commentary as a ‘striker’s challenge’.

There are many valid criticisms of Southgate at this tournament, but the really quite disarmingly reckless decision to head to Germany with no specialist back-up whatsoever for poor Luke Shaw looks a more and more potent one.


12) And on the other flank Kyle Walker had one of his more distressing appearances for England. There were the wild final balls and overhit passes that you generally accept as part of the overall package with the Man City man, but absolutely none of the good stuff.

There probably was one, but we cannot think of a single pass Walker played that a team-mate was able to take comfortably in their stride. Saka didn’t have a good game by any measure and looks, like many of England’s players, bloody knackered. And this isn’t to excuse him, but it can’t help when you’re having to adjust and stop and start and twist and turn to received every single pass from your full-back.

Even Jordan Pickford didn’t escape being on the receiving end of the wildly overhit Walker pass. At least in his case it gave him something to do and at least confirmed he was still awake.

England’s best spell of the game came at the very end, when Trent Alexander-Arnold was at right-back and Walker had switched to the left.


13) We’re not saying it’s going to happen – we simply can’t imagine Southgate going into knockout ball without his Kyle Walker Recovery Pace Comfort Blanket – but imagine if Alexander-Arnold actually does end up being England’s right-back. What a sensational punchline that is to a set-up six years in the making. We would genuinely forgive Southgate and his players absolutely everything else they’ve got up to at this tournament just for the sheer bravura of pulling that one off.

When Trent was getting ready to come on here it looked initially like it was going to be for Bellingham. We braced ourselves for heads exploding, but bringing on the right-back you’ve spent a lot of years ignoring and then a whole year insisting is in fact a midfielder, committing to the bit so whole-heartedly you give him the No. 8 shirt, at right-back was perhaps the funniest possibility of them all. A 10/10 substitution, no notes.


14) So that’s both full-backs and midfield that we’re not quite sure what to do with. Now to the attackers where… we’re not quite sure what to do.

Foden was the best of them, and he’s the one playing in a position we’re still really not sure about.

Jude Bellingham was near invisible, and that’s a huge worry. It looks increasingly like ‘England played well for those first 30 minutes against Serbia’ really might have just been ‘Jude Bellingham played well for those first 30 minutes against Serbia’.

At one point in the first half here, he kicked at the turf in frustration, and he appeared not to have quite got over the difficulties posed by the Frankfurt pitch against Denmark before arriving here.

We’re talking mentally and physically here. The Cologne pitch wasn’t great, with a couple of pretty significant bobbles. But it didn’t cut up and fall apart like Frankfurt under the roof. Yet Bellingham appeared to have had the strength sapped from his legs and the certainty from his mind.

It’s disconcerting to see him play with this lack of precision and clarity and surety, purely because it’s just not something we’ve seen before.

Almost nothing he attempted came off, from switching to the left, to trying his hand at a bit of false ninery when Kane pulled deep and right to play him in with a sumptuous pass that stood out so dramatically because of its sharp contrast to all that had gone before.

A lot of big players from a lot of big nations look weary at this tournament after long seasons, but none so thoroughly as England’s.


15) That one moment aside, Kane did little to assuage the doubts that surround him. He still looks leggy and ponderous and, while England made a clear and concerted effort to get closer to him and get balls to him in and around the penalty area, his overall all-round contribution isn’t at the level we’ve come to expect.

The sight of Kane lumbering so awkwardly around the pitch and Southgate making the uncharacteristic decision to pick two back-up strikers in his 26-man squad starts to make us wonder just how fit Kane actually is after he sat out games at the end of Bayern Munich’s season with a bad back.

It’s all probably moot. Unless Kane is spectacularly and thoroughly injured there is no chance Southgate leaves him out, and almost no chance he subs him off in a knockout environment where the spectre of penalties lurk around every corner.

He will play, and he will either improve or he won’t. England may have two other options in the squad but neither has ever been used by Southgate in a way that suggests he sees them as any kind of option from the start of games. And that’s still fair enough, really.

But England so desperately need more.


16) Slovenia deserve a bunch of credit for their efforts, and England plenty of criticism for theirs. But some is due for the tournament format as well and the way it invited this game to pan out precisely as it did.

Elite sporting competition relies for much of its appeal on jeopardy, and this 24-into-16 group stage robs us of so much of it. Euro 2024 has often been brilliant, but it is nearly always in spite of the format, not because of it.

Scotland tried to have a bob each-way on what should always have been a must-win game. Even Croatia’s exit would have made a more compelling sporting story had it been confirmed the moment Mattia Zaccagni’s shot hit the net rather than 24 hours later by England failing to beat Slovenia 3-0.

Such was the state of play by the time Group C reached its conclusion that Slovenia knew a third draw from three would guarantee them a last-16 spot. There can be no complaints about the gameplan they therefore adopted and only praise for how well they executed it. Indeed, it would have been foolish for them to do anything different at all.

But you’ll have a better tournament if more teams are required more often and more quickly to go out there and try and win.