How England’s missing Euro 2024 ingredient was highlighted by a most unexpected source

The Manchester United boss knows Gareth Southgate has been linked with his own job

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 17 June 2024 09:52 BST
Jude Bellingham explains 'wolf' celebration against Serbia

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It perhaps says a lot about England’s performance that, other than Jude Bellingham’s goal, one of the most noteworthy elements of the night was a comment by the Manchester United manager. Erik ten Hag was a pundit on Dutch television and came out with a fairly stark assessment of the 1-0 win over Serbia.

“It's the vision of the manager," Ten Hag said. "England will take a 1-0 lead, then he decides to start gambling with making his team compact and relying on moments for the remaining minutes of the game.”

There is a lot going on here, and a lot of context. Above anything, Ten Hag knows that United’s Ineos hierarchy see Gareth Southgate as his potential successor. That could even have been this summer.

Given that, and especially with how some of the words could apply to his own United displays, it was some brass neck from Ten Hag. His statement was maybe even bolder than anything any England player did on the night outside Bellingham.

That is also why there is truth to it, no matter who said it. This is maybe the tactical perception that got Ten Hag the United job in the first place, although it's not exactly any great insight. There are obvious examples of what he’s talking about, though. One was England’s very last match in the Euros before this. Ten Hag was essentially describing the Euro 2020 final against Italy.

As to whether that can stop England going one better this summer, that’s the big question.

There is one huge difference in Bellingham himself. He has the force of personality to take the side further at Euro 2024 on his own, as everyone saw against Serbia. Southgate said Bellingham “writes his own script”, and that might be all the more important given the manager so often sticks to his own.

It is one of the ironies of England’s campaign, all the more so since Southgate caused such commotion by abruptly picking so many young attackers. Those choices changed the profile of the England squad but they don't change the nature of the manager. This team don’t look like they’re going to suddenly cut loose. That’s because it’s still ultimately a lopsided squad with an abundance of talent in attack, and especially in specific positions, under a manager whose primary virtue is organisational structure.

That has been the source of both England’s steady progress and a consistent frustration with Southgate’s side. Such talent conjures images and expectations of brilliant flowing forward play.

Bellingham celebrates after the match
Bellingham celebrates after the match (The FA via Getty Images)
Jude Bellingham scored England’s winner against Serbia
Jude Bellingham scored England’s winner against Serbia (AP)

The reality has often been staccato performances with the attackers largely looking like they’re operating on tramlines.

At its best - like around 2019 and patches of the 2022 World Cup - that can be instinctive and incisive. Most of the time, however, it is more often like the performance against Serbia. England, as Ten Hag said, are left waiting on moments.

It stood out all the more against what Spain and Germany did in the first two days. Southgate had warned that such performances are neither typical for opening games nor continuous in tournaments, while pointing to the number of issues England have inherited.

That is true, and his team could look very different by the end of the group stage. Are they ever going to look anything like Germany, though?

One of the overriding emotions from Friday night's 5-1 evisceration of Germany was that you immediately wanted to watch Julian Nagelsmann’s side again. It was joyous. How often has that happened with Southgate’s England? He is just a different type of coach, with a different type of way. Southgate doesn’t seek to imbue a team with an ideology from within. It is more imposing an order from above.

Gareth Southgate congratulates his players
Gareth Southgate congratulates his players (AP)

Hence the compilation of a team bible from Euro 2020 that had assessed how teams win tournaments, particularly looking at Portugal 2016 and France 2018

That is why England can still do this, despite all these perceived criticisms. They have the talent. They have the structure, since this was another clean sheet. They have the temperament of the manager, which has created the right spirit in the group.

They might just need a bit more of the brazenness that Ten Hag has shown.

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