Football

The night Phil Foden finally joined the Euro 2024 party and gave England a gameplan to beat Spain

It was the performance England had been waiting for, but for Phil Foden, it was perhaps the opponent he had needed.

For 45 minutes, one of the Premier League’s finest and the national squad’s most capable looked every inch the star he has become: a player as adept at finding space as exploiting it, as consistent in his decision-making as in his execution.

After arguably making five false starts, sporadically showing his gifted touch but too often littered with horizontal unimagination, Foden became a playmaker, a goal threat and a counter-attacking fulcrum all at once against Netherlands.

It was a showing many had demanded he either produce or be replaced, with options aplenty within the 26 but his manager’s trust – as with Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane and others who have drawn questioning – has been immovable. This time, he was rewarded with not just a sign of what’s possible, but of what might be the exact route required to claim victory when England now meet Spain in Sunday’s Euro 2024 final.

There are so many parts to that though, from England obviously attacking with more pace as a team, to the Dutch leaving spaces as they attacked themselves – the first real opponent who have gone at Gareth Southgate’s team for any sustained period or with any level of technical quality. They’ll face that again in four days. And yet England were better, and Foden was most improved of the lot.

Around that, Foden was always on hand to receive possession, always able to find the gaps, always able to link in particular with Kobbie Mainoo and Bukayo Saka.

One curled shot against the outside of the post was so close to sublime. One close-control dribble actually was, and had the deft finish between the ‘keeper’s legs to match – but Denzel Dumfries, soon after conceding the penalty which levelled the match, was on hand to clear off the line.

Foden rattled another shot in low which forced Bart Verbruggen into a save before the break, but outside of him trying to add to the scoresheet it was simply his involvement that was the biggest notable difference: dropping deeper to facilitate transition play, drifting across to create overloads in Bellingham’s channel and, finally, running in behind Kane.

England had had nobody doing that job until Saka against the Swiss, and here it lent itself to such a notable difference in the quality of build-up play and the chances fashioned as a result of it.

Such was his movement all half that at the break he had already covered over 5.6km, more ground than any other player on the pitch – perhaps not a surprise when it was so often Foden closing down the goalkeeper, before darting back into his channel.

It comes with questions: why he didn’t find this level earlier, or perhaps why didn’t England have a set-up to allow him to?

And the biggest question of all: how did Southgate and his side allow the game to drift so much in the second half to the extent that Foden was almost a non-event?

Perhaps Bellingham was the more anonymous player, and Saka marginalised by where the game was taking place, but Foden went from being the hub of forward movement to an afterthought in where to move the ball to.

From Foden joining the party, the second half became what often comes afterwards: a terrible hangover and a lack of clear thought, as well as an inability to drive… in this case, forwards.

In the end, the invitation was not revoked entirely. Foden was substituted along with Kane for the final ten minutes of play and, despite the Dutch certainly seeming the stronger as the match wore on, it was one of those changes – Ollie Watkins – who produced the perfect finish to send England to Berlin.

It gives Southgate one more chance to produce the perfect gameplan, which will out of necessity this time have to come in stages, with different components, different types of successes.

Even after a lower-key second half, England dominated possession in this semi-final: 58 per cent across the 90 minutes, almost bang on their tournament average which places them third-best in that regard.

They will not get a similar tally against Spain.

La Roja are technically the best nation at the tournament and might be the best tactically, too. Yet as the first half against Netherlands showed, playing into spaces at pace – countering, transitioning at speed and with clear build-up ideals – suits the Three Lions.

Xural.com

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