Tuesday, July 23, 2024

How Ollie Watkins and four touches changed everything for England

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It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And that was some way to send England to the Euro 2024 final in Berlin on Sunday. In a tournament where every Gareth Southgate decision has been questioned and criticised, it is one of his decisive substitutions that has returned England back to European football’s greatest stage, and a chance of redemption for Euro 2020. Many might say it was the obvious move to take off Harry Kane but it still wasn’t as clear as Ollie Watkins’s sublime strike. Four touches were enough, maybe yet to rectify 58 years.

This is something that shouldn’t be overlooked in all of the undercurrents that will swirl around a gruelling 2-1 victory over the Netherlands.

England are back in a major final, their second in three years, and just the third in history. It is the sort of record this football culture has long desired but now there is the demand for more.

The problem is the very fixture will demand more, as Southgate’s side take on the best team in the tournament in Spain. Those are discussions for the next few days, though. For now, it is only the moment to revel in something marvellous. Watkins’s flying finish was certainly fitting of the moment.

In reaching the final, too, there was at least the sense of a team arriving – if only briefly. England’s spell between Xavi Simons’s brilliant opening goal and half-time was by a significant distance their best period of football in this tournament. They looked like what the vision of this team should be.

They certainly have the spirit a team should have. That is something else that should not be dismissed in all the discussion over performance and even the controversial penalty decision for Kane’s initial equaliser. England are getting through in a way that causes belief to grow and shows how ingrained it is. That’s now a last-minute winner to top off a penalties victory and a last-minute equaliser. These are the sort of events that start to make a team feel that success is fated, which can have a powerful effect. There is an “aura”, as Kane himself put it.

It might be the foundation to beat Spain. It just needs considerable work, too, because an obdurate Dutch team made this another battle. It was just one that finally didn’t go to the extra-time, for the first time in England’s knock-out run. That could be crucial for energy come Sunday in Berlin.

Watkins saved England from needing to use more. Southgate, for his part, was also required to respond to what Ronald Koeman did. He, himself, rose to it.

Xavi Simons produced a stunning hit to break the deadlock
Xavi Simons produced a stunning hit to break the deadlock (Getty Images)

The Dutch constantly forced England to those levels, especially after Simons’s strike was arrowed into the top corner.

Euro 2024 might not have been the best competition as a whole, but it has offered a series of stunning goals. It was how Pickford was beaten. He almost looked stunned by it. So did Declan Rice. The Arsenal midfielder was bundled off the ball before it just took off from Simons’s foot. Superb from Simons, a sign that Rice was maybe getting fatigued.

England, as a whole, did at that point look like they were lacking the Netherlands’ sharpness, and the penalty came at a good time for them. The decision can be debated but the response cannot. After Kane had drilled into the corner following the perceived foul from Dumfries, England considerably picked it up. They had their best spell of the tournament – but only briefly.

England's Harry Kane celebrates with teammates
England’s Harry Kane celebrates with teammates (AP)

Kobbie Mainoo, more than anyone, went up several levels. As well as shoring up that gap from which Simons scored, he was bringing the ball out from there to really make England move. Foden was greatly enjoying the wider platform that Mainoo was offering, as he began to find some range. One brilliant long shot clipped the outside of the post. The next was just inside the post, but met by Bart Verbruggen. When Foden finally beat the goalkeeper by slipping it through his legs with such a typically Foden finish, there was Dumfries to stop it on the line.

The Dutch full-back gave England a warning, however, by hitting the crossbar himself from a corner. Netherlands did manage to squeeze the game down to such inches. Koeman conspicuously switched formation to match Southgate’s system at half-time and it played a huge part in England going from this new assertiveness to the same old drift. They began to look prosaic again. The Netherlands started to look properly threatening for the first time, with two strong saves from Pickford.

Phil Foden impressed in Dortmund
Phil Foden impressed in Dortmund (AFP)

It said much that Foden was eventually hauled off before the end of the 90. He’d gone from one of his liveliest performances to looking lost and frustrated. That isn’t a reflection on him but more how Southgate’s side couldn’t recover the same verve.

Within the attempts to figure that out, though, the manager had seen something.

The changes began to take effect. There was already a warning from a Bukayo Saka goal ruled out for offside. Another substitute in Cole Palmer had the chance to square for the otherwise muted Jude Bellingham when the opportunity presented itself.

Watkins slots it into the corner of the net
Watkins slots it into the corner of the net (Reuters)

Watkins wasn’t going to be so wasteful. He was ready to bite. He had bided his time. It is an impressive individual story in a team that has fought its way here. Against that, and how England have ground their way through, Watkins shot just soared.

It was a supreme moment. The ball just flew past Verbruggen.

It was right into the corner, to put England right into the final.

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