Sunday, July 21, 2024

Euro 2024: Ollie Watkins sends England to the final

Morning.

England are through to the final of Euro 2024, after a late goal from Ollie Watkins saved us all from more extra-time and possible penalties. To be fair, the first half was by some distance the best Gareth Southgate’s team have played in the tournament so far, and it was the most entertaining 45 minutes of football they’ve been involved in.

The Netherlands took the lead when Xavi Simons won a challenge against Declan Rice, drove towards the box and unleashed a cracking shot which flew beyond Jordan Pickford. It’s a great hit, but one of those where you think the keeper should have done better. Maybe it’s harsh on the Everton man, and perhaps doing a disservice to the quality of the strike, but still … I’d be a bit unhappy with an Arsenal goalkeeper in the same circumstance.

England’s equaliser came from the spot, and I have to say I thought this was a very, very generous decision. Kane had a shot, Denzel Dumfries tried to block it, and the very minimal contact was Kane kicking the defender, not the other way around. Of course he went down like he’d been shot, old habits die hard etc, and that prompted a VAR review that I don’t think they’d have taken a second look at otherwise. Eventually they told the ref to view the incident, and he pointed to the spot.

For me, never a penalty. I’d be furious if that were awarded against us, and I couldn’t help but wonder about all the stories about this official in the build-up and his history. Did that play a part in his decision making, knowing how much that would have been in the spotlight if he’d denied England a penalty? We’ll never know, but the thought occurred to me anyway. Kane, all of a sudden right as rain again, took it and scored.

After that, England had chances. Foden hit the post, and had one cleared off the line, and if any team looked like scoring again, it was the men in white. Both managers made half-time changes, and the fizz went out of the game. It reverted to something more akin to what we’ve seen previously from England at this tournament, in no small part because the players looked absolutely exhausted. For example, I’ve never seen Declan Rice look that tired, and it seems clear the effects of a long season plus all the playing time in Germany had an impact on him and many others. Before the 90th minute winner, England had just one attempt on goal in the entire second half – although Saka had a goal disallowed for a pretty tight offside in the build-up.

At least this time Southgate changed something. It was the 81st minute when he brought on Watkins for Kane who, despite a better first half, was basically abject again, wandering around doing whatever he felt like doing. All of a sudden England had a striker who could provide something of a focal point. A striker whose movement wasn’t leaden, and in the wrong areas of the pitch. At one point in the second half, Bukayo Saka got to the byline and pulled a great ball back for the centre-forward, but Kane was ambling towards the box and the chance went begging.

I’ve said more than once that I think Watkins should be starting up front, and the goal he scored illustrated exactly why. He was where a centre-forward should be to pick up the pass, the first touch was excellent, and the ability to quickly get a shot away on the turn is something Kane no longer has. And look what that can do for a team. Rather than having to slog through another 30 minutes, and face the high stress of a penalty shoot-out, England went through in normal time. Watkins should 100% start the final, in my opinion, and Kane should be relegated the Wout Weghorst role where if you need a big lump off the bench, you’ve got one. Once you’ve given Ivan Toney a run beforehand, obviously.

All jokes aside though, I think England’s chances of beating a very good Spain side will be enhanced by playing their strongest team – and at this moment in time, Watkins gives them something important, and something Kane can’t (or won’t). It’s a big decision for Gareth Southgate, and I suspect he’ll stick rather than twist, but if this is something most of us can see from a distance, it can’t be something he’s unaware of. Loyalty is nice, and Kane has done a lot for England down the years, but sometimes you have to be ruthless to achieve what you want.

It’ll be interesting to see how it goes, and it’s going to be a fascinating final. Spain have been the best team at the Euros, England have just found a way to grind through and win games, so hopefully it’s a great game on Sunday.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. We’ll have a podcast for you in a while, and rather than make it a Patreon only, we’ll put it out as this week’s Arsecast. Arsenal news is thin on the ground, but we’ll see what we can dig up and tack that on too. It’ll be in all the usual podcast places later this morning.

Until then.

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