England survived a huge scare in the last 16 of Euro 2024 when Jude Bellingham’s last-gasp overhead kick for the ages rescued them from a humiliating exit against Slovakia.

It set up a quarter-final meeting with Switzerland, impressive winners over holders Italy in their last match, in Dusseldorf on Saturday.

England’s poor performances so far in Germany have diluted their status as one of the pre-tournament favourites, but they still have a golden opportunity if a gifted squad can show their true potential.

So why should there be any hope that England can still flourish as Euro 2024 enters its final phase?

Centurion Southgate has chance to get it right

Somehow England have survived manager Gareth Southgate’s tactical muddle to still have the chance to put matters right in the tournament.

Southgate, who will take charge of his 100th game as manager against the Swiss, has overseen a mess in midfield, which saw the failed “experiment” of using Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold alongside Declan Rice ditched just after half-time in the second Group C game against Denmark. Conor Gallagher then lasted only 45 minutes when he replaced Alexander-Arnold in the next game against Slovenia.

Phil Foden has been a threat, but often forced to drift around the margins on the left-hand side, meaning moments of individual brilliance from Bellingham primarily have sent England into the last eight.

Manchester United’s Kobbie Mainoo performed creditably against Slovakia but once again the team looked unbalanced, uninspired and extremely fortunate to win after another dismal display.

This appears to have convinced Southgate of the need for urgent change – a luxury he is fortunate to still have given England’s showings in Germany.

And that means a switch to back three, somewhat enforced by defender Marc Guehi’s suspension. It is also a chance to give England more balance, potency and the opportunity to get the best out of what is, at first glance, an array of attacking riches.

Southgate could also form a golden triangle between Foden, Bellingham and Harry Kane giving England more shape and structure.

He was in defiant mood on Friday as he said: “As a 53-year-old, I’m not worried about losing or about things going wrong. The downsides for me are irrelevant.
“It about going for it. That’s the mindset and it has been my mindset throughout the tournament.”

This is a chance England and Southgate are lucky to have – but they must raise their game several levels to take it.

The Bellingham factor

In Bellingham, England have a player with the “X-factor” – as proved by that stroke of genius with 86 seconds left against Slovakia as their Euro 2024 campaign stood on the brink of a humiliating collapse.

His injury-time overhead kick was a goal, and a moment, that earned instant iconic status. More significantly, though, it kept England in a tournament when an inglorious exit looked certain and, on the mediocrity they have delivered, deserved.

It gave Southgate a chance to reset. Again.

The “who else?” celebration re-affirmed Bellingham’s concrete confidence and self-belief – bolstered even further by the 21-year-old winning La Liga and the Champions League in his first season at Real Madrid – that he is the player who can make the difference to England.

Bellingham has already done that, despite indifferent personal performances against Denmark and Slovenia, with defining contributions such as the winner against Serbia in England’s opening game and that moment of magic against Slovakia.

If there is one player who can provide optimism that the impossible can be possible in Berlin on 14 July, then it is Bellingham.

England can only get better

England have been a pale imitation of the team that carried so much hope and expectation with them on the journey to their Euro 2024 base at the Weimarer Land Spa and Golf resort in Blankenhain.

A richly talented group of players have looked jaded, disorganised and, mysteriously for a side containing the attacking threat it does, short on creativity and menace.

Southgate has realised so much has been missing that it must be addressed with a change of system to revive their fortunes.

Kane has scored two goals but has not been his usual threat. Foden has arguably been England’s most dangerous player, but the feeling remains he could do a lot more if Southgate can devise a tactical style to allow him to work more centrally.

Even Bellingham’s brilliance has come in those two flashes rather than with consistency, so Southgate’s hope going into the last eight is that there is still more to come from his key men.

It would be a source of huge regret to him and England if they went home with a sense of what might have been, especially as they have landed in a favourable half of the draw.

If they had been offered the opportunity of beating

Switzerland, then either Turkey or the Netherlands, to reach the final before flying out they would surely have signed up.

It is in their hands and Southgate has seen signs of improvement, saying: “There has been a lot of expectation on the team in the early part of the tournament.

“I feel the team, in training, looks in a different place mentally. They look more fluid and I’m expecting us to play well.”

If England are to fulfil those hopes, they cannot afford another poor show against Switzerland.

Echoes of Italia ’90 for England

When England began their 1990 World Cup campaign in Italy with a tedious 1-1 draw against the Republic of Ireland, Rome newspaper La Repubblica carried the headline “Is This All There Is To England?”

Those words could have been repeated after Southgate’s side drew with Denmark and Slovenia, as well as the scrape to victory against Slovakia.

England have received scrutiny and criticism in Germany and cannot escape the fact it has been merited.

In Italy, manager Bobby Robson proved there was more to that particular vintage by altering his system to a back five for the next group game against a Netherlands side boasting Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard.

Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Mark Wright – who scored the winner in the final group game against Egypt – took on the centre-back roles as a Paul Gascoigne-inspired England reached the semi-final, eventually losing on penalties to West Germany.

Southgate also looks to have decided on this radical shift to cure England’s lack of balance with Kyle Walker, John Stones and Ezri Konsa set to be employed as the back three against Switzerland to help spark his side into life.
It is a bold move to make midway through a tournament, as well as evidence of a previously flawed plan. Yet history shows it can work. If it brings the best out of players such as Bellingham and Foden and gives more ammunition to main marksman Kane then it is a risk worth taking.

England have the players to make such a system work if they can unlock the potential that has been hidden away in Germany. Can they now do it?

England beware – ‘confident’ Switzerland ‘in great shape’

Switzerland are now regarded dark horses to win Euro 2024, posing a serious danger to England, especially if Southgate’s side perform as poorly as they have.

The 2-0 win over Italy was framed in some quarters as being down to the holders’ under-performing. This does a grave disservice to a confident, competent Swiss side under the shrewd leadership of coach Murat Yakin.

It also came on the back of fine display against Germany, when the hosts needed Niclas Fullkrug’s injury-time header to earn a point.

Switzerland have players known to England’s squad too, such as outstanding Manchester City defender Manuel Akanji, former Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka – the driving force behind Bayer Leverkusen’s trophy treble in their unbeaten Bundesliga season – and Newcastle United defender Fabian Schar.

Former Stoke City and Liverpool maverick Xherdan Shaqiri can still make an impact, as Scotland found out, while Remo Freuler has been outstanding in midfield, as has Ruben Vargas on the left.

This well-rounded team has scored seven goals from seven different scorers and the mood was genuinely confident when Yakin addressed the media on Friday night.

He said: “We are in great shape. We have a lot of confidence. We have shown against Germany and Italy we can play against the big teams.

“We played well against the reigning champions, we played well against the hosts. We will cause problems for England.”
England have been warned.

BBC

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