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Gareth Southgate credits ‘savvy’ England for finding ways to win

Gareth Southgate lauded England’s streetwise spot-kick heroes after reaching the Euro 2024 semi-finals and heaped special praise on Bukayo Saka for exorcising his penalty demons against Switzerland.

Having stumbled through the group stage and secured a dramatic extra-time triumph against Slovakia in the round of 16, Saturday’s edgy quarter-final was decided on penalties in Dusseldorf.

Star man Saka cancelled out Breel Embolo’s opener to make it 1-1, taking the match to extra time and eventually onto spot-kicks.

Jordan Pickford saved Manuel Akanji’s effort in a 5-3 triumph wrapped up by Trent Alexander-Arnold, setting up a semi-final against the Netherlands in Dortmund on Wednesday.

“There’s what we ideally want to be and then there’s how we’ve needed to find ways to win with all the obstacles we’ve had,” Southgate said.

“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.

“But as I said to the players, with England it was often start 25 minutes really well, ahead in games and then 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.

England fans celebrate on the race track at Sandown Park
England fans celebrate on the race track at Sandown Park (Zac Goodwin/PA)

“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.

“We want to always be competitive in tournaments. England should be competitive for the coming years. This is a young team – a lot of them are going to be around for a long time.

“But, of course, now we want to deliver one. We’ve never been to a final outside of England, we’ve never won a Euros, so there’s two bits of history we’d love to create.”

Jordan Pickford celebrates following the shoot-out win
Jordan Pickford made the decisive save from Manuel Akanji (Adam Davy/PA)

Pickford’s water bottle was printed with penalty instructions, part of processes that Southgate is annoyed have been shared in recent years.

The England boss also expressed irritation at the switch to a three-man defence leaking three days before facing Switzerland match at a tournament where he has been widely criticised.

“Every now and then you think ‘surely there has to be some enjoyment in this job’,” Southgate said of the post-match celebrations after his 100th match.

“So, if I can’t enjoy that moment then the whole thing is a waste of time. I love the players. I love being in that moment with them.

“I took this job to try and improve English football, not the seniors when I first joined the Football Association. I wanted us to regain credibility on the world stage.

“So, I can’t deny that when it is as personal as it has been in the past few weeks, on a human level that is quite difficult.

“But we are fighting, we won’t stop fighting and we’re in another semi-final and we’ll see where we can get to.”

Southgate spoke to England’s players about the “other qualities” required to win at tournaments during Friday’s semi-finals, noting how Spain “found ways to win” against hosts Germany.

Penalties provided the path to progress this time, with the former defender praising spot-kick takers Cole Palmer, Jude Bellingham, Ivan Toney, Alexander-Arnold and, in particular, Saka.

The 22-year-old was among those to fail from the spot in the Euro 2020 final loss to Italy but showed incredible resilience and belief to score on Saturday.

“I gave him a massive cuddle on the pitch,” he said. “He’s a special boy, he’s a dream to work with, wonderful family.

“Of course pleased for everybody but for him especially when his went in. That takes courage but we have belief in him. We had belief in him previously.

Bukayo Saka scores from the spot
Bukayo Saka stepped up and scored for England after missing his spot-kick in the Euro 2020 final (Adam Davy/PA)

“He’s now got a lot more experience of those pressure moments and his all-round performance was exceptional.”

While the pain of that Euro 2020 final loss still lingers, Southgate was quick to point to the shoot-out wins against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup and Switzerland in the following year’s Nations League.

“We think we’ve got a good process,” the England manager said. “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.”