Gareth Southgate will make his century. It is an incredible achievement. But Southgate will reach the landmark on the back of a streaky forward-defensive that snicked the edge of his bat, and just evaded the wicketkeeper.

Southgate invited Ben Stokes to talk to the squad in their pre-tournament training camp in County Durham. Cricket is one of the England manager’s favourite sports. And the analogy is apt. Because – just as it is with many centuries scored in Test cricket – Southgate’s England innings has had elements of brilliance, and some moments of good fortune too.

The victory over Slovakia in Gelsenkirchen was certainly Southgate’s biggest stroke of luck in his almost eight years as manager.

England were dreadful for 95 minutes. They didn’t manage a shot on target in that entire time, after Southgate had stubbornly resisted any call to make significant changes to his starting XI, or to his game plan, for the fourth match in a row.

It was England’s worst performance of the tournament so far, and that is quite a statement. They are going backwards, when the aim was to peak for the business end of the competition.

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Former Three Lions defender Gary Neville believes England have to step up and take risks if they are to overcome Switzerland in the quarter-finals as the Swiss have been impressive in the tournament so far

I have been saying since before the Euros started that Jude Bellingham is exhausted. It is so, so obvious in every game that he plays. He did nothing against Slovakia. Right up until he did “that”.

It was a moment of sheer brilliance that very few players in world football could manage at any stage in a game, let alone so deep into injury time when your nation is on the verge of exit and ignominy. It is the latest goal England have ever scored in a major tournament, before extra-time.

That moment of mesmeric magic didn’t just save Southgate’s blushes, it saved him from the darkest stain on his England legacy. Had England lost in Gelsenkirchen, it would have – without doubt – been the final act of Southgate’s custodianship. He would have been 99 and out. And his tenure would have come to an end with England unable to match any of their achievements in his previous three tournaments. World Cup semi-final, Euros final, World Cup quarter-final, remember. As it is, whatever happens next, Southgate will be able to walk away from this job knowing the minimum he ever managed with England was a quarter-final. That’s impressive.

It may explain why it seemed a much more breezy Gareth Southgate I saw in the Arena AufSchalke after the game. He was berated by some England fans as he left the pitch after the 0-0 draw with Slovenia, and attacked unforgivably with empty plastic beer cups as he walked down the tunnel. I know that hurt him. He says publicly that he has broad enough shoulders to take all that is thrown at him. “Target me, not the players,” has been his message to supporters. But the truth is that Southgate is a proud and sensitive man, one who strives to please, and someone who desperately wants to win a major trophy for the nation.

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England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford says fans need to keep believing in Gareth Southgate’s side and admits they need the nation to get behind them

I saw him leave the Mixed Zone media area in the bowels of the stadium, and make his way to the team bus with a big smile on his face and a spring in his step. Joking with his media advisers. It was almost as if he knows the pressure has lifted a tiny bit with that win, and that England can only gain more support, the further they progress from here.

Without doubt, England and Southgate could seize that special, tournament-defining moment from Bellingham to galvanise the nation, and the squad, and push them on to new heights in this European Championships. How many times has there been one, singular incident for a team in a tournament when every football lover from the broad spectrum of footballing nations says: “Their name is on the trophy.” That might well be what many non-English fans are thinking right now. It’s certainly what the petrol station attendant told me at 2am as we stopped for fuel on our way back from Gelsenkirchen. “Lucky, lucky England!” he said. “You will win now!”

That Bellingham goal could be England’s moment. It will be remembered as one of the most iconic England goals of the last few decades. Because of its brilliance, because of its importance, and because of its timeliness. It ranks alongside David Platt’s volley against Belgium in Italia ’90. Gazza’s volley against Scotland and the dentist chair celebration in Euro ’96. Michael Owen’s brilliant solo effort against Argentina in the World Cup of 1998. It could be the one moment we all look back upon and say “that’s when it turned.”

Southgate must rip up his pre-tournament plans

But it can only be so if Southgate realises his plan has failed spectacularly for four matches. Only if he is prepared to jettison some stellar names who have repeatedly under-performed, and turn to the understudies. What is the point of understudies if not to replace the primary actors when they are under-performing? The main men have had four games, and none of those team performances has impressed. If England are to capitalise on Bellingham’s majesty, the England manager has to rip up his tournament philosophy and start again.

Southgate said in his post-match interviews that it is for moments like that you leave your game-changers on the pitch. He told the BBC: “With 15 minutes to go, you wonder if he is out on his feet. Him and Harry Kane produce those moments and that is why you don’t make changes when people are clamouring for more changes.”

In essence, he is correct. If Jude Bellingham wasn’t at this tournament, England would have been knocked out after three tame draws in the group stages (he got the winning goal against Serbia, in England’s only victory). If Southgate had substituted him before we got to injury time in Gelsenkirchen, England would have been going home now with their tails firmly between their legs.

But for me, Southgate’s reasoning misses the key point. If England weren’t relying so heavily on Bellingham, maybe they would have played much, much better as a team and been well ahead in the game, and so wouldn’t have needed the Real Madrid star’s spectacular act of salvation.

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Gareth Southgate reflects on England’s shaky victory over Slovakia to proceed to the Euro 2024 quarter-finals and what he looks to do to maintain spirit and improve performances

Before the game, I’d called for Bellingham to be rested. Not dropped – rested. Because if you look at his statistics, and just study his body language and impact on games, it is so clear to everyone he is burned out. The game against Slovakia was his 106th in two seasons, and it was the day after his 21st birthday. He is exhausted. Rest him, bring him back in the even more important games to come, was my reasoning. That decision may yet be forced on Southgate for the quarter-final, depending on the outcome of the UEFA disciplinary proceedings that have been issued against England’s matchwinner.

Harry Kane, similarly, is still miles away from full match sharpness. The captain is a special case, and has scored two goals in two games, and so will – correctly – be given special dispensation to continue. But it was a stark reminder of what England have been missing in his game right now, when Ivan Toney came on for his major tournament bow. With Kane regularly trying to drop deep to influence the game, then often unable to get back into the box when crosses come in, Toney was a stark contrast. He acted like a traditional number 9 who leads the line. When England were under the cosh, he held the ball up, ran the channels, and won several free-kicks on halfway with his back to goal, as the England defence made desperate clearances.

Southgate told the media Toney wasn’t happy with him at all when it was suggested he come on in the 94th minute, with England 1-0 down. To be fair, it proved to be a crucial substitution because it was the Brentford striker who set up the Harry Kane winner, 50 seconds into extra-time. It is easy for the manager to justify sticking with the same players when they are playing and winning well. It is much more difficult for Southgate to explain to his substitutes why they are being overlooked when the “first team” is underperforming.

Southgate’s options

Luke Shaw  - England training
Is it now too late for Luke Shaw to be used at the Euros?

So what changes should Southgate make? Kieran Trippier is a brilliant defender and a reliable and indefatigable character. He has played well out here, but the lack of a left-footed option anywhere on England’s left flank is so obviously crippling. Trippier hobbled off against Slovakia and so may not be fit to face Switzerland. He is still nursing a calf injury, remember. But Southgate must abandon any plans of playing Luke Shaw in this tournament. He isn’t fit. He shouldn’t have travelled to Germany. Southgate admitted it was a gamble, and it hasn’t paid off.

That’s not Southgate’s fault – he gave Shaw every chance to prove his fitness. His natural ability in the position, both going forward and defensively, would have been a big asset. But he hasn’t played a minute of football since mid-February, and he cannot be risked now, in a Euros quarter-final, almost five months later.

Nevertheless, England desperately need a left-footer on the left side of defence, and on the left side of their attack. I think they need a right-footed option on the right wing, too. Of England’s four wide options in the starting XI so far, only Kyle Walker is playing on the same flank as his favoured kicking foot. As a result, England are so narrow, and so easy to defend against. Denmark, Slovenia and Slovakia have all been able to prepare for an England side that never looks to go wide, run past them along the wing, get in behind their defence, stretch the full-backs. And so it will be for Switzerland, unless Southgate changes things.

There has been no element of surprise, no real threat. England have been predictable, and impotent. They have tried to beat the low block with intricate passes in the congested centre of the final third. They have scored three goals in four games, in normal time. Anthony Gordon, Cole Palmer, Jarrod Bowen – all wait patiently in the wings.

England rescued their tournament after they abandoned any game plan, and threw the kitchen sink at Slovakia. When it worked, they then had a major problem because they had to face an extra 30 minutes with the most lop-sided, shapeless England XI I have ever seen. They had four wingers on the pitch, with Ebere Eze playing left-back, and two strikers up top.

England's Marc Guehi controls the ball during a Group C match against Slovenia at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Cologne, Germany, Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Marc Guehi is suspended for the quarter-final with Switzerland

The manager and players deserve huge credit for seeing the game out, after Kane gave them the lead, in the midst of the chaos. Conor Gallagher – still licking his wounds after being dispensed with at half-time in his first start at a major tournament (against Slovenia) – was called upon to stiffen the midfield. He did that. And every player ran for their lives in extra-time, as the stunned Slovakia team threw everything at them.

The defence has been a shining success in the four games so far. The fact that Marc Guehi – England’s most consistent player throughout – is suspended for Switzerland, is a real worry. He has been the epitome of calm and class that England have needed. Ezri Konsa is likely to deputise on Saturday, and he is a very decent replacement.

England’s reasons for hope…

But England’s problems elsewhere pre-date this tournament. England have won just two of their last nine matches in normal time. Two wins in nine. That is dreadful form, and certainly doesn’t suggest they are trophy-contenders. It is the worst run of form under Southgate for 24 months.

If that isn’t evidence enough that Southgate’s game plan isn’t working, I don’t know what is. This is not a Southgate-bashing exercise. I think history will judge him very kindly. He is England’s most successful manager, after Sir Alf Ramsey. He has gone closer than any other England manager since 1966 to ending the traumatising trophy drought. He has made the atmosphere in camp so enjoyable, the very best players want to play for their country again. That has not always been the case. And he has made the English nation proud of the vibrant, diverse, and likeable team that represents them.

I feel Southgate may yet be able to give the nation what they want during this, his final tournament. But only if he makes significant changes.

The good news is England have time to come up with a new plan. It is six days after that draining experience in Gelsenkirchen before they face Switzerland in Düsseldorf. It will take the squad two days to recover. They will have the whole of Tuesday off, and have some time with their families. I’m told they are all – even those who didn’t get on the pitch – exhausted by the emotional trauma and then the elation of it all.

England scraped through to the quarter-finals
England will have recovery time at the start of the week ahead of the quarter-final

They flew back from Gelsenkirchen to their base in Blankenhain, but didn’t get into their beds until after 1am. But we have already been informed that there will be no open training on view for the media on Tuesday. No media interviews that day either. It will be the only proper “dark day” for England in the tournament so far. Rest, lads. Recover. Prepare to go again.

Wednesday is the time for some honest words behind the scenes. That is the day to talk tactics, and find a new way of playing in time for Switzerland, and in time for England to rescue their Euros. It is not too late. If Southgate has finally accepted that it is time for Plan B. This Euros draw has opened up in such a way as to give England fans real hope of silverware. If only the team can play to its spectacular potential.

This is surely Southgate’s final innings. The question now is whether the England manager can tweak his technique whilst still at the crease, and carry his bat right through to a final hurrah in front of the packed stands in Berlin.

At the moment, it feels like he is swishing hopefully outside his off-stump. If he doesn’t change his style, his luck will surely run out when he finally faces a decent delivery from a more dangerous opponent.

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