FIVE games in, and perhaps we’ve reached the stage where we have to stop worrying about what England are incapable of doing.

We know they’re laboured and predictable in attack. We’ve seen enough over the course of the last five matches to accept that they’re not going to suddenly start slicing teams apart with incisive, creative football. They barely ever shoot, let alone score, and the left-hand side of their line-up remains a mess. Instead of waiting for things to click into place, let’s accept that none of that is going to change when they line up against the Netherlands on Wednesday night.

And yet, here they are, preparing for their third semi-final in the last four major tournaments. Prior to Gareth Southgate taking over, England had only been in three semi-finals in the whole of their existence. For all the flak that has been hurled in his direction since his side arrived in Germany just under a month ago, England’s under-fire boss is clearly doing something right.

How have his side managed to make the semi-finals when, over the course of five matches, they’ve only really produced half-an-hour of anything resembling decent football, and that was right back in the early stages of the opening group game against Serbia?

While England have once again benefited from being on the right side of the knockout draw, it’s not just luck. Southgate’s side can defend, and as the old adage says, while your attack might win you an odd game here and there, it’s your defence that will win you a tournament.

Across a host of different metrics, England and France boast the best two defences at the Euros by a considerable margin. England do not give up big chances – Switzerland’s goal on Saturday came via a fortuitous deflection off John Stones that diverted Dan Ndoye’s cross into the path of Breel Embolo – and while Southgate has had to turn to the relatively unheralded Marc Guehi and Ezri Konsa at different points of the tournament, the pair have performed superbly when called upon. The area of the team that was generally cited as the biggest concern prior to the start of the Euros has turned out to be England’s greatest strength.

By staying in matches thanks to their defensive organisation and resilience, England have engineered a series of situations whereby a moment of individual brilliance has had the potential to prove decisive. Southgate’s star names have not really shone on a consistent basis, but Jude Bellingham fashioned an overhead kick from nowhere when defeat to Slovakia was looking inevitable and Bukayo Saka fired in a superb equaliser on Saturday when England were heading into the final ten minutes a goal behind. Saka was the best player on the pitch for much of Saturday’s game, but even when England’s attackers are struggling, they always have the potential to produce a moment of magic that turns a game on its head.

Then, there is penalties. For so long their nemesis, the penalty shootout has become one of England’s biggest strengths. Saturday’s success means they have now won three of their four shootouts under Southgate, and the exemplary manner in which they outperformed the Swiss at the weekend speaks volumes for the preparation and thought that has transformed England’s approach to penalties.


There’s Jordan Pickford’s water bottle with detailed instructions for each opposition penalty taker, and the methodical way in which the Wearsider prepares for each spot-kick, subtly unnerving his opponent. Having kept out Manuel Akanji’s penalty at the weekend, Pickford has now made at least one save in each of his shootouts with England.

And what about the quality of England’s efforts? Cole Palmer set the tone with his clinical finish, Bellingham stroked confidently into the corner, Saka comprehensively buried the demons of his miss in the final of Euro 2020, Ivan Toney did what Ivan Toney does, casually rolling home without even looming, and Trent Alexander-Arnold settled things with the best spot-kick of the lot, hammering the ball to Yann Sommer’s right. From the composed walk from the centre-circle to the lengthy pause for breath before each effort, England’s players got their penalty procedure spot on. Previous managers have regarded a penalty shootout as a ‘lottery’; Southgate knows it is a game-defining moment in which a host of manageable factors combine to deliver an outcome. The more factors that are in your favour, the better your chance of success.

“We think we’ve got a good process,” said Southgate. “We’ve been in four, we’ve won three. Of course, we got absolutely crucified for the one we lost and that’s always going to be the case because it is outcome based. We refined that process a little bit, we have more regular penalty takers in the squad now than then, and more that have been in shoot-outs.”

Not, of course, that everything is perfect. Southgate’s switch to a five-man defence elicited a degree of improvement in the standard of England’s all-round display, although the bar was set so low in the wake of the Slovakia game that pretty much anything would have been better than what had gone before.

The decision to keep Kieran Trippier on the left rather than switch him to the right was no doubt influenced by a desire to prevent the dangerous Ndoye from breaking beyond the England backline, but it once again neutered the Newcastle defender’s attacking threat and created an imbalance to Southgate’s line-up. It will be interesting to see if the England boss sticks with five at the back for Wednesday’s semi-final or reverts to a flat back four, but whatever he decides, Luke Shaw will surely start on the left against the Netherlands provided his fitness holds up. If nothing else, having a natural left-footer on that side of the field should enhance England’s cohesion.

What about Harry Kane? England’s talismanic skipper has been a shadow of his usual self this tournament, with his laboured approach and general lack of sharpness suggesting he must be struggling with some kind of injury issue. Southgate won’t drop him, and Kane’s tally of two goals from five matches means he is only one short of the leaders in the race for the Golden Boot. He doesn’t look right though, and it is surely telling that the only time an England forward has raced beyond an opposition defence throughout the Euros came in the quarter-of-an-hour in which Ollie Watkins was on the pitch instead of Kane in the latter stages of the Denmark game. Both Watkins and Toney have looked more threatening than England’s leading goalscorer, but Southgate will not be for turning. He will continue to back Kane.

He is right to do so because the strength of the bond between manager and players is one of the key strengths of this England side. Southgate has fostered a powerful sense of unity and common purpose that has withstood the various problems that have presented themselves in the last two matches. When England’s players have had their backs to the wall, needing to find some way of surviving, they have flourished.

“We’ve needed to find ways to win with all the obstacles we’ve had,” said Southgate. “Going back to losing players a couple of months ago, losing players just before the tournament, different balance of the team, different challenges all the way through, really.

“With England, it was often start 25 minutes really well, ahead in games, and then out in the early knockout rounds. We weren’t savvy, we weren’t tournament wise. This group are different. They keep possession for longer periods.

“We haven’t always got it right. The games we’ve ultimately gone out in, people can always look back and highlight things. But, in general, we’ve shown the resilience that the teams that win tournaments have had for years and years.

“Italy, France, Spain, you know, it’s not all pure football. It’s other attributes that they’ve had and we’re showing a little bit more of that streetwise nature.”

Streetwise England, the ultimate tournament team. Two more games for footballing immortality.