Euro 2024: Southgate’s safety-first approach proves right, just enough

Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles. Sir Alex Ferguson’s quote has been hackneyed quite a lot in football circles over the years. England Head Coach Gareth Southgate and his squad seem to have taken the adage a little too seriously ahead of its Euro 2024 campaign. 

A series of underwhelming performances has taken the sting out of the otherwise boisterous expectations of the Three Lions fans. Yet, England finds itself a match away from equalling the feat from the previous edition and the plaudits must go to the defence for getting it to this position. 

It is evident from the style of play that the Three Lions have chosen to take a low-risk approach through the tournament. The team tops the list for the most touches taken in the defensive third with the backline content in recycling the ball among themselves. 

Even in the group stage games where the team managed to score first, the immediate reaction was to sit back and make it hard for the opposition to break through the lines rather than find a second goal to kill the game. 

England’s accumulated xG (expected goals) per 90 of 0.76 is the fourth lowest among all teams in the tournament, comfortably lower than the three other semifinalists. Unlike France though, England’s problem hasn’t been wastefulness in front of goal, it has been a clear lack of opportunities created. A key passes (passes leading to a shot) per 90 figure of 7.37 is staggeringly low – the seventh lowest among all teams at the event. 

England has completed the second most passes among all teams in the competition (3115), which amounts to 566 per game. But, only 7.93 per cent of these passes have been progressive (forward) indicating a clear fear of playing a chancy pass through the lines.

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On the other hand, the back end of the field seems to be much more secure for Southgate’s men. England has conceded just 380 passes per 90 this tournament. Among the semifinalists, only Spain concedes a lower number of passes to the opponent. 

The Three Lions have the joint-best record among the four remaining teams in the competition when it comes to xG conceded per 90 (0.84). Their key passes conceded per 90 figure of 6.84 is third only to Germany and France. 

Declan Rice has been crucial in the way England set up defensively, registering more tackles (12), interceptions (5) and winning possession (25) more than any other player on the pitch on the way to two player-of-the-match awards in two knockout games. 

Jude Bellingham too has contributed to the defensive side for the team. The Champions League winner who saved the team from embarrassment in the round of 16 fixture against Slovakia with a clutch injury-time overhead kick equaliser has the second-most tackles among his teammates (8) while also winning the most ground duels (27). 

England’s midfielder Jude Bellingham (L) shoots an overhead kick to score his team’s against Slovakia.

England’s midfielder Jude Bellingham (L) shoots an overhead kick to score his team’s against Slovakia.
| Photo Credit:


England’s midfielder Jude Bellingham (L) shoots an overhead kick to score his team’s against Slovakia.
| Photo Credit:

The absence of Harry Maguire at the heart of the defence was expected to handicap England aerially, but Marc Guehi has shouldered the responsibility to an extent, contesting and winning the most aerial duels among the backline, albeit at a lower success rate than John Stones (45% to 61.5%).  

Guehi’s omission against Switzerland following a second yellow card didn’t hurt the team too much with Ezri Konsa ably filling in. Southgate’s team conceded an xG of just 0.08 during the first half of the quarterfinal in what was its best half-game performance in the ongoing tournament. 

With the players adapting better to the style of play with each passing game, however regressive it may seem, the Three Lions will be confident about shutting out the Netherlands in the semifinal. The players seem to be growing increasingly confident of contesting penalty shootouts too – or so the record under Southgate suggests – as the trauma from past defeats eases up.

The onus is now on the front line and the creative nucleus of the team to conjure up enough chances to threaten the opposition and not surrender to the jeopardy of penalties to make a second successive final and have a shot at a maiden European Championship win. 

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