Disintegrating England put on best show yet by bringing the vibes | Jonathan Liew

It’s the second half of extra time, and about 107 minutes have been played, or maybe a couple, or maybe four months, it’s hard to tell. Eberechi Eze, who is now England’s left wing-back, dribbles the ball out of the penalty area under pressure and pumps a long, hopeful, hopeless ball up the left flank for an exhausted Harry Kane to chase.

Kane, who is nothing if not eager to earn his 26th touch of the night, duly chases it. The angle is against him and there are no teammates remotely near him, and Manuel Akanji is breathing all over his shoulder blades, but still Kane manages to keep the ball in. And keeps going. Over the touchline, off his feet, and straight into the England dugout, where he is wrapped up by the grateful arms of his manager Gareth Southgate.

And for Southgate, taking charge of his 100th match for England, this feels like a quietly emblematic moment. Perhaps the fundamental theme of his eight-year reign has been the search for control.

Control of the environment, control of the ball, control of midfield, control of discipline. But of course, time has loosened the reins from his grip a little. Now Bukayo Saka is at right-back, nobody has really been able to identify the formation for about 15 minutes, and his captain is quite literally coddled in his lap.

You can take your plans and schemes. You can take your fastidious attention to detail, the meticulous selection of training facilities and sessions, all the data, all the video, all the years spent on the M62 going to watch players who were never going to make it. Maybe, ultimately, it was all for nothing. Because England are in the semi-finals of Euro 2024 and literally no part of it makes the slightest sense.

England celebrate beating Switzerland on penalties to reach the semi-finals. Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Typical: you finally nail your audition for the Manchester United job, and they’ve already given Erik ten Hag a new contract. Here again, another streaky late show high on flaws and high on drama, by a team fatally disconnected from its public, fatally disconnected from itself. It was probably England’s best performance of the tournament, and yet you would still struggle to call it progress. This thing, this delicate machine that Southgate has painstakingly built over eight years, has completely disintegrated. It’s just fragments and vibes now. And – plot twist – the fragments and vibes are brilliant.

The game in summary: England were bad for about 90 minutes, good for about 30 minutes in around eight separate spells, Saka slammed one in from the edge of the area and Jordan Pickford saved a penalty, and Southgate has now reached as many tournament semi-finals as all his predecessors combined. Don’t try to spot a pattern in any of this. There isn’t one. The origin truth of football is that outstanding individuals doing outrageous things is no basis for a team. The origin truth of international tournaments is that, sometimes, none of this matters.

Bukayo Saka profile

You could glimpse this in the new hybrid formation: four at the back in defence, three at the back going forward, but occasionally nine at the back when England inexplicably decided to drop the pace and let Switzerland attack them. Kieran Trippier being rewarded for his deadly attacking threat on the left by being promoted even further up the left. But Kobbie Mainoo was a fresh, sparkling presence in midfield, Saka taking Michel Aebischer for a joyride on the right, Ezri Konsa winning most of his battles, England, above all, getting stuck in.

But of course this doesn’t last and so, after a long spell of pressure, the high press grabbing England like a claw, Switzerland score. Murat Yakin’s plan B, pushing Dan Ndoye further forward, works a treat. It is Ndoye’s cross, touched on by Stones, bundled in by Breel Embolo, that brings England to the brink again. The first 75 minutes of this game have gone by in a kind of numb blur. Perhaps it takes the goal to make England feel something again.

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So, Gareth. About that handbrake. Credit to Southgate, he doesn’t think twice. He doesn’t give it five minutes. He doesn’t tweak it. He rips it up. On comes Cole Palmer. On comes Eze. On comes Luke Shaw. England finally have a threat down the left and because football is a fluid, organic game of subtle shifts and butterfly effects, the breakthrough comes on the right. Declan Rice with the decoy dart into the right channel, taking Steven Zuber with him. Saka, finally with a stretched defence and a little space, applies the finish.

Saka here. Jude Bellingham against Slovakia. The inevitable penalty shootout. Perhaps the reason England have so reliably come alive in these last-chance moments is that this is a team that have basically crumbled, a team playing off their primal instincts. Players running into each other. Formations that feel like abstract art. The chill of cold death on their buttocks, the foretaste of tomorrow morning’s push notifications. And so they rise from the slab and do what gifted footballers do.

Is this any kind of a strategy? Well, yes and no. There’s a fine line between Portugal 2016 and Brazil 2014. But the stately order of Peak Gareth is gone now, and it’s not coming back in the next 180 minutes. Chaos brought England to their knees. Perhaps, ultimately, only chaos could get them up again.

The Guardian