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The ‘Free Lions’ have survived them, says Southgate

Gareth Southgate says that England’s stars are no longer playing with the expected weight on their shoulders and can approach the semi-finals when they face the Netherlands with ease.

Southgate and his team are under heavy scrutiny after a disappointing start to their Euro 2024 campaign, which saw them beat Serbia 1-0, draw 1-1 with Denmark and draw 0-0 with Slovenia.

If anything, things got worse in the Round of 16 when the Three Lions needed 95thJude Bellingham’s one-minute equalizer forced extra time and they went 2-1 down against lowly Slovakia, although there were encouraging signs as they came from behind in the quarter-final against Switzerland before going through on penalties.

Quiet outside noise

Southgate told a press conference ahead of Wednesday night’s semi-final in Dortmund that there had been a ‘definite change’ in his players as the tournament progressed.

“I was really interested,” he said, “as a coach sometimes you step back and see it.

“One of the things we have been strong about in the past seven, eight years has been less fear, and less. But I think that at the beginning of the tournament, the expectations were too heavy and the outside noise was bigger than before.

“I felt like we couldn’t put ourselves in the right place, in the end, what impressed me was that the players threw it away, threw away the results and found ways to win.”

What can happen?

Southgate highlighted the gloom on the faces of his players after the draw against Denmark that finally confirmed their progress to the knockout stage, saying that other national players celebrated with the fans, but in England it was not expected.

“I heard that that changed when we entered the playoffs and definitely in the quarter-finals,” he said. “I thought we saw a better version of ourselves with the ball, with ease.

“I’m not sure if the message has changed but I just heard that the team has changed. Now you’re at that point in the competition where ‘what could happen? what is attainable?’, rather than ‘what is perishable’.

“That is different for the players, for the athlete. So, this is now a chance to make history, which we’re delighted to do, a chance to reach the first final not held in England – the first time England will do that.

“We are trying to break new ground. That is difficult and complicated, but the players have responded with intelligence and the resilience that has been built.”

England failed to reach the semi-finals of either the World Cup or the Euros in the 22 years before Southgate took over, and have now reached the last four in three of the last four competitions.

“Our figures for the semi-finals look similar to what we hoped England’s history would look like,” he said. “But there are many countries that have won the European Championship and we have not won it yet. We want to try to redress that balance.”

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