The key battle to dictate who wins as England face Netherlands at Euro 2024

England are improving as they progress through the knockout rounds of Euro 2024, Gareth Southgate has insisted, but they face their biggest test yet against Netherlands in the semi-finals on Wednesday night.

The match in Dortmund pitches two nations against each other who have some magnificent individual components, but have not yet put together the performance as a team which might have been expected.

Ronald Koeman’s side perhaps have the mitigating factor of pre-tournament injuries, but they only came third in their group to progress – England have been unimpressive but unbeaten throughout, albeit progressing in extra time and a penalty shootout across their last two games.

Now the semi-final meeting will dictate not just how much of a success the summer has been as a whole, but also offer up the chance to face Spain in the Berlin final – which for the Three Lions would mean back-to-back European Championship final appearances, following defeat to Italy three years ago.

All over the pitch there are hints at key players whose form or eye for goal might make them match-winners, but one area in particular looks to be tactically crucial to deciding which nation goes home, and which goes on to Sunday’s grand finale.

That will come down the England right, Netherlands left, and specifically when Kyle Walker clashes with Cody Gakpo.

The Oranje forward is the joint-leading scorer at the competition so far, with a relatively low three goals to his name, but aside from finding the back of the net has been a vital part of the Dutch build-up play plan, beating men with regularity, linking well with his fellow forwards – and also working hard down the flank to win back possession.

Gakpo has three goals so far
Gakpo has three goals so far (EPA)

While Walker has often been pointed at as a must-have in the England lineup to counteract any pacy opposition wingers, it’s Gakpo’s movement as much as his speed which might make him a tough player to stop for the Manchester City defender. It’s fair to say Gakpo has shown more quality and consistency at the Euros than he did for much of last term at club level with Liverpool, but it’s also fair to point out he’s back in what was his “normal” role – left side, cutting in, a regular outlet and free to dribble and shoot to benefit his strengths. That’s in contradiction to playing centrally, and deeper, at times in 2023/24.

Back in his familar role, Gakpo is the Dutch side’s best out-ball, chasing the channel and running straight at defenders – and attacking the back post every chance he gets, as seen for the winner against Turkey when he beat the full-back to a ball and poked in, via a deflection.

If recovery speed is Walker’s best defensive trait, awareness at that player coming in behind him might be his defining worst one over a number of years. And, indeed, that’s precisely what was on show against Switzerland, Breel Embolo beating him to a ball across the six-yard box in an almost replica of the Gakpo-Turkey incident.

It would not be any kind of surprise if the same situation replayed itself as the Three Lions meet the Oranje – yet that is far from all the battle has to offer.

Kyle Walker for England
Kyle Walker for England (Getty Images)

England have two set-ups they’ve used in the tournament, one which sees Walker right-back in a four, the other where he’d be the right-sided centre-back in a three-man unit. Both will see him and Gakpo come up against each other, but if England match up Netherlands with a 4-2-3-1 – more viable now Luke Shaw is back in contention on the opposite side – then Walker will have the opportunity to reverse the occasion and push Gakpo back.

While the winger has been hard-working, it’s not his primary role and it’s not the job he’s always instinctively aware of; Walker on the other hand is a natural outlet going forward and on the overlap, and doubling up with Bukayo Saka ahead of him could give England their own outlet and overload opportunities.

Walker hasn’t been at his best at the tournament so far, perhaps, while Gakpo has thrived back in orange, but a one-off match between two who know each other from club level battles so well – see also Harry Kane and Virgil van Dijk – can always see the tables turned for 60, 70 or even a full 90 minutes. Gakpo has shown only needs an instant to decide the game, though, if Walker isn’t absolutely on top of his own.

Source link