The case for an England victory in the Euros

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Two things can be true about England at the same time. One is that they have stumbled into Saturday’s quarter-final against Switzerland playing dismal football. The other is that they are, rightly, bookmakers’ favourites to win Euro 2024 — and not just because of “loyal money” from English football fans betting on their own team.

With the caveats that the outcome of any knockout tournament depends largely on luck, and that Switzerland are good enough to send England home, there are several factors that speak for England.

The one that doesn’t is their play. England’s 3.71 expected goals in their first four matches are the worst of any quarter-finalist.

Their one-paced team lacks creative passers at the back. The defenders spend much of the time shuttling the ball pointlessly among themselves, which is how John Stones, Marc Guehi and Kyle Walker have each completed more than 300 passes. Opponents leave England’s worst passer, Guehi, deliberately unmarked. (He is suspended against Switzerland.)

They move the ball upfield slower than any other team in the tournament, letting opponents form their defensive screen long before England’s creators can be unleashed. And since England cannot execute even a basic version of modern pressing football, they win few balls in dangerous areas.  

Their play has regressed since Euro 2020 and the Qatar World Cup. Blame for this must go to manager Gareth Southgate, who is already being basted for the traditional role of national scapegoat. The ritual laments about spoiled, overhyped multimillionaire players have begun.

But then there’s the upside. Firstly, on paper England have the easiest route to the final. Their opponents — an enjoyable and organised Swiss team, followed by either Turkey or the Netherlands — are not world-beaters. The four teams with the best expected-goals difference in the first round congregated on the other side of the draw. On Friday Spain and France fought their way past Germany and Portugal respectively, only now to have to face each other in the semi-final.

Secondly, England — other than the chaotic 10 minutes that culminated in Slovakia’s goal — have a tight defence. That’s the flipside of committing few men forward. They have conceded only twice in four games, fewer than anyone except Spain and France. The saying in football is that while goals win matches, clean sheets win competitions. Three of the last five Euros were won by the side conceding fewest goals. Only one recent winner — Spain in 2012 — scored the most.  

The last point is in England’s favour: their problems are tactical, and therefore fixable. Quality isn’t their issue. Toothless though Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka have looked for most of the tournament, they haven’t become poor footballers overnight. Harry Kane, 30, hasn’t grown old since scoring 36 goals for Bayern Munich this season. His two goals here, and Bellingham’s last-minute overhead volley to save England against Slovakia, showed individual class compensating for the failing system.

Bellingham, in particular, takes responsibility for the result even when playing badly. As Southgate said of him: “The top players affect the big games in the moments when you need them.” 

Encouragingly for England, history is full of tournament winners who started poorly but found their best line-up. West Germany in 1974 lost to East Germany, whereupon captain Franz Beckenbauer took joint control of selection and reshuffled the starting 11. They won the World Cup. Spain in 2010 never once played to their potential, lost to Switzerland, almost went out in the first round, then won the World Cup. And Argentina started the last World Cup with a defeat against Saudi Arabia, after which coach Lionel Scaloni belatedly stuck three young reserves, Julián Álvarez, Enzo Fernández and Alexis Mac Allister, in the starting line-up. Argentina won. Hardly anyone now remembers these teams’ early matches. 

Southgate may shift to three centre-backs against Switzerland, hoping that wingbacks will enable more fluent attacks. Any tactical solution will require England to get their best passers on the ball earlier. That might entail moving Bellingham from the number 10 position to the back of midfield, where he excelled in Qatar. He already dropped back frequently against Slovakia. Then Foden could move to 10, instead of hanging about on the wing waiting in vain for lesser players to feed him.

England have also accrued valuable experience. Some players are going into their fourth quarter-final in a major tournament since 2018. England’s traditional downfall in big matches has been to retreat into the dangerous terrain of their penalty area, and hoof balls long, essentially feeding the opposition all match.

They did that against Croatia in 2018 and against Italy in 2021. Over time they have got better at sticking with methodical passing football even when they fall behind. “We were probing and kept being patient,” Southgate said after England beat Slovakia. It was their fourth consecutive match at a Euro in which they won after conceding first.

England won’t be brilliant against Switzerland. They might even be dismal again. They could still win.

Data visualisation by Dan Clark and Ray Douglas

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