16 Conclusions on England beating Switzerland: drop Foden and Kane, Southgate subs, Saka phenomenal

Matt Stead
England player Phil Foden and manager Gareth Southgate, forward Bukayo Saka and captain Harry Kane
England are into the European Championship semi-finals

England are in the Euro 2024 semis in spite of their manager, captain and best player. Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and Phil Foden must thank Bukayo Saka.


1) “The biggest takeaway from the whole experience for me was the contrast. I think you look at the run into the final, it felt like the country had united. We had black players in the team, players of all different backgrounds from all different countries. And then as soon as they missed the penalties, they’re not English, they’re just black” – Jude Bellingham, May 2022.

After 120 minutes, the instinctive overriding emotion was relief. Not because the game was finally over, nor even especially that England won; that particular exhilaration would soon inevitably take over. No, the overwhelming sense of comfort lay in the identity of the specific players who delivered them to another tournament semi-final.

Jude. Bukayo. Ivan. Trent. Even Cole, whose grandfather emigrated from Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1960, his great-grandparents having been part of the Windrush generation. They will have seen the vitriol aimed at Marcus, Jadon and Bukayo in 2021. In one incredibly humbling, breathtaking case they will have experienced it first-hand and still somehow mustered the strength, courage and character to place themselves in that same lamentable position again. They will have known what could have waited on the other side of that kick, the horrendous, despicable, unforgivable abuse they would have been subjected to had they not scored. They showed a level of fortitude and fearlessness it is impossible to compute or articulate with anything vaguely resembling justice.

It is deeply regrettable that minds might have wandered to such thoughts, that the skin colour of those brave and brilliant enough to step up in a shoot-out should in any way be deemed relevant in terms of whether they can kick a ball into a net from 12 yards. And some will dismiss the idea that it warrants a mention as twee or virtue signalling or woke.

But it absolutely does. Three black England players were vilified by a vocal but national minority after their previous tournament shoot-out; three years later, four black England players accepted that risk, embraced the responsibility and proved themselves to be remarkable people, as well as wonderful footballers.

Bellingham would have been no less English had Yann Sommer gone the right way, Toney no more a bad guy if his effort was a couple of yards further out, Alexander-Arnold no more fair game if that decisive shot flew over instead of into the top corner. But the possible ramifications added to the ludicrous pressure they all faced. Within each kick was a middle finger to those waiting for them to fail before they could press ‘Post’.


2) A fair few words on Gareth Southgate will follow, but some praise is due first.

“I have to say it never crossed my mind before,” he said in summer 2022 when asked whether potential racist abuse might impact his preparation for penalty shoot-outs. “It will. When I left The Grove that day I couldn’t help but feel: Have I created this situation here for the boys?’

“But it wouldn’t be right to not pick the players you think are best to take them because of what the possible consequences of them missing would be. I’ve got to pick them on the belief they are going to score. We’ve got 55 years of talking about penalties and everything else. So we’ve now got another layer that’s going to make it extremely difficult for us to win anything.”

For the best part of two hours, the England manager remained infuriatingly apprehensive in his decision-making, once again flirting dangerously close to elimination from this tournament and an exit from his role before being spared by a moment of individual excellence. In terms of the penalties Southgate could hardly have been braver, from taking Harry Kane off in extra-time, to taking Toney to Germany at all, to selecting the takers of five of the best England kicks in recent memory.


3) His wry smile after responding to a pre-match question about what he hoped his apparent change in system to a back three would achieve by simply saying, “Well, let’s see what the formation is first,” should have been the first giveaway.

Southgate is many things but coy does not come naturally and when England took shape at kick-off the inexplicable, unfathomable picture immediately became clear: Saka was still high on the right, Kieran Trippier on the left and ostensibly precious little had changed from the group stages and Slovakia game.

The truth soon revealed itself in a hybrid approach which resulted in England being considerably better out of possession in the opening half an hour or so than they had been all tournament. The passing was crisper and quicker, the pressing more structured, the patterns of play more coherent.

These are low bars at elite level but for the first time all summer, England were consistently clearing them and showing signs of work actually having been carried out in training. They had *a plan*.


4) Literally and mythologically central to that was Foden, instructed to operate in that more free role those who champion him insist will unlock England, floating behind Kane and allowed to pick his passes instead of holding Trippier’s hand on the left.

Foden himself said in an interview during the build-up that the position “should suit me a little bit better today” and the early signs were positive with a fine ball over the top to Saka on the right.

But his notable contributions essentially ended there. Foden was tidy on the ball and solid defensively, yet his obvious magnificence remains entirely theoretical for England, an idea they still cannot harness.

While a great deal of that is down to the tactical framework he has been placed in, Foden also frequently just makes the sort of dreadful personal choices he never would with Manchester City. The offside goal against Slovakia was a glaring example but that shoddy attempt to hook a pass over his head for Kane to chase when a high ball caused confusion in the Switzerland defence was bizarre. It is difficult to imagine Palmer trying that, for example, instead of simply bringing the ball down and threading it through.

Perhaps it damns Southgate more than anyone but England’s tournament has been symbolised by moments of incredible skill breaking out from the foundations of a mundane team and the individual many still believe to be their best player has not been close to providing one of his own. An underperforming attack cannot really take on many more passengers and Foden, as probably the most frustrating of two, needs to be dropped.

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5) Then there is Kane, determined as he is to make Cristiano Ronaldo look mobile, productive and of any use whatsoever.

Eight completed passes in 109 minutes is perversely impressive. Opta defines an unsuccessful touch as a moment when a player touches the ball and subsequently loses possession; Kane had more than any other player with five. At one stage shortly after England equalised he took a shot off Palmer’s foot in the area, despite the Chelsea forward actually facing the goal and Kane having his back to it.

There were two tackles in his own half – one in his own area – but it was another painfully ineffective performance in attack which should have been curtailed much earlier.

It does feel like that reported back injury will be worth at least four paragraphs in a future inside story long read on England’s tournament; it would at least excuse and justify these awful centre-forward performances.

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6) When the furore over Trippier starting another game on the left had abated, the teams settled into some sort of rhythm with both having shots in the first quarter of an hour. Declan Rice and Kobbie Mainoo were pressing high to win the ball back as England were far less passive; Switzerland exploited a few gaps to deliver some dangerous balls into the area.

Twice early on Ezri Konsa was called into action, thwarting Remo Freuler and flicking a Ruben Vargas cross away. Another fine block on Breel Embolo followed shortly after and as the pressure was applied in the second half, the Aston Villa centre-half was on hand to steer another low ball away from the Switzerland forward.

The concern at how England would cope without Marc Guehi was valid; the way Konsa deputised on his first competitive start for his country was phenomenal. If nothing else, Euro 2024 has helped prove that international experience need not be a prerequisite for tournament selection because most of those who have stepped up for England have never been asked to do so before.


7) The most glaring of all exceptions to that rule is Saka. Southgate’s blueprint for the game was far from perfect but his best decision – keeping the Arsenal forward high on the right – was pivotal.

Saka dominated his battle on that side with Michel Aebischer, particularly early on. He glided past his rival with consummate ease at least four times in the first half but only once was his final ball accurate enough to find a teammate. And then, on the stroke of half-time, Granit Xhaka managed to block Mainoo’s shot in the six-yard box magnificently.

When England most needed it, Saka realised the problem with ten minutes of normal time remaining: he was passing to his teammates instead of just being absolutely shudderingly outstanding. Quite how he has managed to co-opt Arjen Robben’s trademark move, only cutting inside and shooting from a deeper and wider position, is a mystery. As is how he has been able to respond to that Euro 2021 final heartbreak by simply continuing on his journey to becoming legitimately one of the best players in world football.

Even without that goal and penalty it was very possibly a man-of-the-match performance. And neither of those moments summed Saka up better than the way he tracked back to make a crucial block on Silvan Widmer in the 116th minute when England’s entire left side disappeared. That mix of selflessness, immense talent and stunning resilience is rare, precious and especially in Saka’s case, still overlooked.


8) By half-time, England were quite clearly better than they had been for months. Again, it was a very low bar to clear, but when considering this was by far the best opponent they had faced all tournament the improvement was notable, underlined by a Bellingham roulette and flick, then a Mainoo dummy which helped him evade two Switzerland players and surge forward to create a shooting chance. England had lacked that sort of quality, skill and confidence.

The truth of their performance lay somewhere between the fawning BBC half-time analysis and the social media doom-mongering which bemoaned more of the same.

But two moments did lean things more towards the latter. First, Trippier being completely unnecessarily caught offside about two yards in the Switzerland half, presumably out of sheer shock at being asked to attack; then the short corner routine which was played all the way back to Jordan Pickford to eviscerate any and all tentative goodwill.


9) England were once more a non-entity from corners. That one was a low point which genuinely harmed their momentum but none of the others threatened Sommer either.

With specialist set-piece coaching never more prevalent, England seem to have almost completely abandoned it as a worthwhile avenue to explore despite their evident success with it in the early Southgate years. The 2018 World Cup was an anomaly in terms of potency yet England have swayed curiously far the other way to render potentially dangerous situations anything but.

England’s four corners were taken by four different players. It does not feel as though there is a particular strategy being carried out, which is plain wasteful. Unless some meticulous plans were scrapped as soon as Harry Maguire was declared unfit, which is almost definitely what has happened.


10) While there was no need for changes from either side at half-time, it quickly became apparent that England should alter something. Switzerland enjoyed a period of sustained pressure soon after the restart, with four shots to zero for half an hour from the 48th minute culminating in Embolo’s goal, Murat Yakin’s side at one stage having nearly three-quarters of the ball for ten minutes shortly beforehand.

It was during that spell he introduced Widmer and Steven Zuber, driving home the initiative after helping sway things in Switzerland’s favour by pushing Dan Ndoye slightly higher. They started targeting the space behind Walker with balls over the top and England were dropping slightly but noticeably deeper.

The Embolo goal was more indicative of Switzerland’s quality than any specific England error. A clever reverse ball from Fabian Schar released Ndoye, whose cross squeezed through Konsa, flicked up off John Stones and was converted at the back post by Embolo, who had evaded Walker. But it had been coming and Southgate was culpable in letting the game drift from England.


11) Then England’s first substitutes arrived; it felt too late but then the same was said against Slovakia. Trippier, Konsa and Mainoo made way for Luke Shaw, Eberechi Eze and Palmer and Saka equalised two minutes later.

The way England subsequently immediately overloaded the left side before switching it over to score did not feel like a coincidence. Two simple but incredibly effective acts unlocked Switzerland: Shaw holding the width and providing an actual viable outlet high on the left which the opponent could not simply disregard as they had Trippier; and Rice’s underlapping run which created the space for Saka to dribble and shoot.

It still required exceptional execution from Saka but this was individual brilliance adorned by powerful teamwork.


12) Once England had an equaliser ostensibly out of nowhere, there was a decent length of time in which Switzerland looked vulnerable. The goal understandably shellshocked them but England had six shots to two from after the goal until the end of the first half of extra-time.

This is where the question of in-game managerial bravery comes in. It obviously worked in the end but Southgate’s only two changes after that triple sub were clearly with penalties in mind, bringing Toney and Alexander-Arnold on for Kane and Foden. It is pure conjecture but Ollie Watkins or Anthony Gordon running at that knackered defence, the whole right side of which had been booked, would have been interesting even just for 15 minutes or so.

It is slightly mad how Gordon did not play in the first two games, came on for about a minute and was really good against Slovenia, then has not played against Slovakia or Switzerland. The clamour continues.


13) Shaw, on his first appearance in five months, was really good. There was a last-man headed interception which he had to get right, a fine overlap which helped create a shooting opportunity for Eze and a vital clearance from a Widmer cross.

He has only played 42 minutes since February, and largely on the left of a back three, but the difference he made to England was tangible and he must start the semi-final.


14) With the rage at Southgate’s constant insistence on being reactive rather than proactive in major tournament knockout football still simmering, the worst example came when Manuel Akanji barged Kane into the dugout and the England captain’s manager vaguely grabbed his arm and spun him around as he fell to the floor.

One step to the side and Kane would have been blocked and saved. Typical passive, unassertive, risk-averse Southgate. Although incredible ingenuity to help injure a player he might otherwise never have taken off.

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15) That Xherdan Shaqiri extra-time cameo was quite something. He scored his penalty in the shoot-out, hit the post from an Olimpico attempt and set up a late chance for Zeki Amdouni which Pickford had to save.

See you in two years, you impossibly-shaped hero.


16) Oh Pickford. The “no problem” monologue he delivered before saving Jorginho’s potential match-winning penalty in the Euro 2021 final will simply never be beaten but yet again he turned up when England needed him.

The discourse over him Playing It Long has emerged as one of England’s many problems – his distribution was fine and varied, including one delightful first-half pass between the lines which Bellingham largely wasted – but as a keeper he might somehow be the most reliable his country has ever produced in a major tournament setting.

It sounds ridiculous initially but holds up against any sort of scrutiny. Only Kane has played more games for England at the World Cup or European Championship. Pickford has been one of England’s better performers at four consecutive tournaments, helping guide them to at least a semi-final in three of them. He has saved twice as many penalties in tournaments shoot-outs as every other England keeper combined, doing more than anyone to exorcise those particular demons.

The budget Emi Martinez thing suits him, the delaying tactics and funny faces putting off Akanji and giving England a platform they did not squander. Pickford is forever destined not to receive the credit he deserves, so In Water Bottle With Penalty Guide Printed On We Trust.