Anyone who thinks England have an easy draw at Euro 2024 needs a history lesson

Time for an excursion. Time for Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland to live a little. The group stage’s done, the draw has opened up, the path to the final in Berlin is kind. Clearly, it’s time for them to step outside England’s secluded Blankenhain base, check in with the local tourist board and find out what the state of Thuringia has to offer.

A trip to the nearby city of Weimar is one option. But the bigger city of Erfurt, home to England’s press pack during Euro 2024, also has its charms. Here we find a medieval tour, quite a bit about the outspoken 16th-century monk Martin Luther and, continuing with the religious vibe, the amazing spectacle of Erfurt’s Old Synagogue, an 11th-century site that somehow avoided destruction by the Nazis.

None of this is relevant to Southgate and Holland, though. Their focus is on preparing to face Slovakia on Sunday. They will not have been celebrating England avoiding a last-16 tie with the Netherlands because of Georgia’s win over Portugal on Wednesday. Whatever you think of Southgate’s management, he is too diligent to take his eye off the ball. Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington were never able to live down gearing up for the Iceland game in Euro 2016 by going on a boat ride down the Seine.

That was one of the finest examples of England overestimating themselves at a tournament. They emerged from their group in second place and everyone assumed they would wallop Iceland. All they had up top was the big boy, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. As if he was going to get a shot past a goalkeeper of Joe Hart’s calibre.

History lesson over, then. But it is surprising people need to be reminded there is no such thing as an easy draw in international football. Some runs are more favourable than others, but every knockout game poses difficulties and it takes a special breed of arrogance to argue that Southgate’s achievements as England’s manager are down to always avoiding the big teams.

That narrative is building again. Typical Gareth, getting away with it. England have been awful, but he’s not going to have to play anyone. Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal are on the opposite side of the draw, so it’s England’s to lose.

Their route to Berlin could be Slovakia, Switzerland and Austria. Does it matter that Slovakia beat Belgium 1-0? That Switzerland almost beat Germany? That Austria finished above France? No chance. England have landed a third-placed team and it’s not even the Dutch.

It is mystifying. Some people never learn. Perhaps they have forgotten England’s tournament record before Southgate walked into the mess left by Sam Allardyce and led them to a semi-final, a final and a quarter-final. Perhaps they don’t know that England, whose deepest pre-Southgate runs since the 1966 World Cup were semi-finals in 1968, 1990 and 1996, had gone 12 years without winning a knockout game before beating Colombia at the 2018 World Cup on penalties.

England’s Kieran Trippier, Jordan Pickford and Harry Kane celebrate beating Colombia in the 2018 World Cup last 16. Photograph: Kommersant Photo Agency/Shutterstock

But wait, it was only Colombia. And instead of Germany in the last eight, it was only Sweden. It was also only Iceland, while it was only six days into their 2014 World Cup campaign before Hodgson’s England were eliminated.

Memories, it seems, are short. Colombia were quarter-finalists in 2014. They were no gimme. England, who were a developing team full of inexperienced players, had to play well in a bad-tempered match and it was only because of Southgate’s attention to detail that they were able to keep their nerve when the tie went to a penalty shootout.

That was, like it or not, a huge win in difficult circumstances and it was no more straightforward against Sweden. They had sent Germany tumbling out in the group stage and always give England a tough game. An orderly 2-0 win, with goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli, was possible because Southgate had maximised his resources by coming up with a clever tactical plan.

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He is good at this. England have topped their group at three successive tournaments. They would have been on the same side of the draw as France, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain if they had finished second to Croatia at Euro 2020. Yet they controlled their destiny by beating a dangerous Croatia team in their opening game, and even then they had to deal with a second-round tie against Germany before playing Ukraine in the quarters and Denmark in the semis.

So what if Germany were past their best? They still had world-class players and it was a tight game. As for Ukraine and Denmark, England were stronger than both, but do you know what else happened in that tournament? Switzerland came back from 3-1 down to knock France out on penalties in the last 16.

David Beckham celebrates scoring against Ecuador in the 2006 World Cup last 16. It was England’s last knockout win until 2018. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Take nothing for granted. England finished first again in Qatar in 2022 and were rewarded with a tie against Senegal, the African champions. It was hard. Senegal were dangerous, even without Sadio Mané. The reason Southgate’s England made it look easy was because Southgate’s England were one of the best teams at that World Cup. Twelve years earlier, Fabio Capello’s England had finished second in a group containing Algeria, Slovenia and the USA. Germany smashed them 4-1 in the next round.

Admittedly, the magic has dried up at these Euros. Still, though, the old triumphalism is creeping back in. Southgate gets away with it again, winning another group and avoiding a date with Germany in Dortmund. After Slovakia, it’s Switzerland or Italy. England, of course, famously always beat Italy. They’ll swat them aside, then destroy either Ralf Rangnick’s hard-pressing Austria or a wild, brilliantly supported Turkey before the final, when it would be just Southgate’s luck to play Slovenia again.

What can possibly go wrong? No wonder the rest of the world admire the English so much.

The Guardian