"England's Team Faces Challenges of Conflict on Field, Calls for Focus on Performance"


The stark truth of England’s journey through Euro 2024 is that the key tenets of Gareth Southgate’s time as manager have gone missing.

This is Southgate’s fourth major tournament in charge of the national team. He has always had his critics, those who believe he is merely blessed with an unusually talented group of players. Nobody, though, has ever had cause to doubt the character, application and unity of a Southgate England team. Until now.

After England’s thrilling but rather impoverished victory over Slovakia in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday, Southgate stopped to talk on his way to the team bus and was asked for a reason that gave him cause to think his team’s football will improve before Saturday’s quarter-final against Switzerland.

This, we are led to believe, is what is driving England forwards here in Germany. A never-say-die desire to prove a point. The creation of a siege mentality.

Gareth Southgate has insisted the togetherness of his England squad cannot be questioned

Gareth Southgate has insisted the togetherness of his England squad cannot be questioned

Jude Bellingham stressed that the Three Lions want to silence critics and prove them wrong

Jude Bellingham stressed that the Three Lions want to silence critics and prove them wrong

England could be boosted by the dramatic nature of their last-16 victory over Slovakia

England could be boosted by the dramatic nature of their last-16 victory over Slovakia

It is familiar football rhetoric. Tournaments are high-pressure environments. Players and managers get stressed. They start to see shadows moving in the corner of the room. Demons, if you like. However, much of this chatter is undermined by what England are doing on the field.

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Under Southgate, England have always played reasonably well in tournaments. They have created chances and scored goals. They have never managed to prove themselves to be the best team but they have at least looked like a team.

Here in Germany it has been different. England’s football has been unusually and unfathomably poor and, although Southgate may talk about the togetherness of his team, it has not always been evident during games. England’s tournament has been characterised by scraping results against a backdrop of on-pitch bickering and arguing.

Bellingham has often been at the heart of it but there is barely a player in England white who has not been sucked into the back and forth at some point. If there were a World Cup for arm waving, England would have one hand on the trophy already.

Writing for the BBC on Monday, former England captain Alan Shearer lamented his country’s failure to create chances and pointed out that the two goals against Slovakia on Sunday came from the only shots on target Southgate’s team managed in 120 minutes. ‘This is our identity in major finals,’ Shearer wrote.

That hasn’t traditionally been true, though. England scored six goals against Panama in 2018, four against Ukraine at Euro 2020 and 12 in total against Iran, Wales and Senegal at the World Cup in 2022. The opposition wasn’t of the highest quality but neither has it been here and England have looked as impotent as any team in the competition. Something fundamental has been missing. Something has changed.

Southgate has a point when he says the adrenaline of Sunday’s comeback win may help to drive England forwards. There is truth in that. Players such as Bellingham, Harry Kane and substitutes Cole Palmer and Ivan Toney will have taken much that is positive from the part they played in the most dramatic game of Euro 2024.

Another thing Southgate pointed out is that memories of past tournaments generally tend to be fond but don’t always tell the whole story.

England's tournament has been characterised so far by on-pitch bickering and arguing

England’s tournament has been characterised so far by on-pitch bickering and arguing

England will have to improve when they face Switzerland in the quarter-finals on Saturday

England will have to improve when they face Switzerland in the quarter-finals on Saturday

‘Everybody, 30 years on, looks back at Euro 96 — and I played in it — in a different way to how it really was at the time,’ he said. ‘We were bang average against Switzerland in the first game, we were the same against Scotland, then Spain should have beaten us in a 0-0 draw that we won on penalties. The 1990 World Cup was similar, so you do go through these moments in tournaments.

‘We know we should be better than we have been but the stand-out is the way the players are dealing with it. Their togetherness, their spirit. You could see the boys that went on but also the boys that came off and the way they were up and supporting the group. So that is giving us a chance.’

England are not the only nation to be wrestling with a misshaped identity. Dutch manager Ronald Koeman is at loggerheads with sections of his home media. Italy’s Luciano Spalletti went home swinging.

Even the host nation are not immune, with Germany’s veteran midfielder Toni Kroos saying the 5-1 destruction of Scotland in their opening game set a bar so high they are now criticised every time they don’t reach it.

But nobody left in this tournament has played football as soulless and bereft of cohesion and purpose as England. The only difference between the way Southgate’s England have played here and the dreadful World Cup campaigns of 2010 and 2014 and the doomed Euros of 2016 is that, somehow, the current side have managed to survive.

Against the odds and against all possible reason, England are still here and well placed on a side of the draw that presents them with a more than equal shot of reaching the final in Berlin.

Improvement must come now under Southgate with the expectation he leaves after Euro 2024

Improvement must come now under Southgate with the expectation he leaves after Euro 2024

Will we ever get to see the real England again under Southgate? We expect him to step aside after the Euros, so if improvement is to come it has to come now, starting with his 100th game in charge on Saturday against Switzerland.

There has, it must be said, been little sign of it. This has not been Southgate’s England. These players don’t look as though they believe in each other any more than they believe in their coach.

The reason to be optimistic is that Southgate and many of his players have tournament experience. None of this should faze them. England also have match-winners in their usual XI and game-changers are sitting on the substitutes’ bench. They should have received a shot of belief on Sunday.

Their very survival should encourage and spur them on as well. Nothing should light up a sportsperson more than the smell of opportunity.

At the moment, though, it’s only tough words and bold promises we are being asked to cling to. At some point, England’s football will have to do some talking too.



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