Did Southgate get lucky or does he deserve credit?

England’s prospects looked bleak when Breel Embolo poked in Switzerland’s 75th-minute opening goal in Dusseldorf. Gareth Southgate, overseeing his 100th game in charge of the national side, was staring at the very real possibility of it being his last.

Later, in the warm glow of victory, he would talk up the performance as England’s best of the tournament so far. But at that point, a goal down with 15 minutes to go, his side were yet to even muster a shot on target. Improved, maybe, but with little to show for it.

As in the last-16 against Slovakia, though, when Jude Bellingham’s overhead kick forced extra-time, England only needed one to make the breakthrough, Bukayo Saka the scorer this time as his stunning strike, having cut inside from the right, crashed in off the post.

It felt like he had got Southgate out of jail. This, even more than Bellingham’s goal against Slovakia, came out of nothing; a flash of individual brilliance in another blunt collective display.

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Penalty decision-making, tactical plans and England’s streetwise nature were on the agenda during Gareth Southgate’s press conference after the game

But it should be noted, too, that it would not have occurred at all had his manager heeded widespread calls to move Saka to the left rather than persist with him on his preferred side.

So, did Southgate get lucky or does he deserve credit?

Maybe both things are true. Maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. The key point, after all, is that, following a penalty shootout in which the coolness of England’s takers bore stark contrast to the nerves of those watching, they are in the last four, the dream still alive.

Fans are entitled to wonder, though, why, as Switzerland boss Murat Yakin made early changes, Embolo’s opener arriving roughly 10 minutes after the introductions of Steven Zuber and Silvan Widmer, Southgate again delayed, not making his first substitutions until England had fallen behind.

This apparent inertia has become a feature not just of this tournament but Southgate’s tenure as a whole. And yet, as against Slovakia, when he himself admitted Ivan Toney’s displeasure at only being sent on in stoppage time, it all worked out in the end.

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Sky Sports News’ Rob Dorsett delivers his verdict on England’s win over Switzerland

Southgate could point to Toney’s role in Harry Kane’s extra-time winner in that game. Against Switzerland, he can point to the fact that, in Cole Palmer, Toney and Trent Alexander-Arnold, three of his substitutes, once they finally made it on, scored in the shootout.

Should it be this difficult? Southgate has been at pains to point out that performances and playing style only count for so much at major tournaments. But England, while successful to this point, have made the supposedly easy side of the draw look anything but.

For all their attacking talent, they remain oddly listless in front of goal. England are semi-finalists and yet they rank 12th among the 26 teams at the tournament for shots on target, below four sides who played fewer games. They rank in the same place for expected goals.

The numbers look even less inspiring when taking the two knockout ties in isolation. England have generated chances worth a meagre combined total of 2.18 xG despite twice going to extra-time. Their three goals have come from only five shots on target in 240 minutes of action plus stoppage time.

England have only won one of their five games in 90 minutes and even that, the 1-0 victory over Serbia in their opening group fixture, felt like a struggle after a promising start. Most fans would agree it has felt like a struggle watching the subsequent games too.

At times, Southgate has seemingly floundered.

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Captain Harry Kane praised Bukayo Saka’s mentality after he converted his penalty

His Alexander-Arnold midfield experiment was abandoned after two games. The chosen replacement, Conor Gallagher, only lasted 45 minutes of the goalless draw against Slovenia.

Some of his consistent calls, such as his continued use of Kieran Trippier on the left and his persistence with an out-of-sorts Kane up front, have invited even more scrutiny.

Ultimately, though, for Southgate, and regardless of what happens next, England’s presence in the last four represents a continuation of a fine record at World Cups and European Championships.

England have never previously reached the quarter-finals of four consecutive major tournaments, as they have under Southgate. This is the third time he has led them to a semi-final. There is frustration that silverware is yet to arrive but his achievements already outstrip those of his more illustrious predecessors.

England players celebrate after defeating Switzerland on penalties to advance to the semi-finals of Euro 2024
England players celebrate their penalty shootout victory

His in-game decision-making remains an area of concern and it will be more sternly tested by a stronger opponent in the Netherlands. But England’s coolly-dispatched penalties underlined the quality of their preparation and the manner in which their mentality has been overhauled. Another late comeback showed their spirit.

Southgate has issues to address and questions to answer but he is responsible for that preparation. He has fostered that spirit.

This England side are far from perfect. The truth is they have progressed to the last four in spite of their performances rather than because of them. But they are there, with a chance of going further. Southgate will make it to 101 games as a minimum.

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