‘Free Lions’ have weight lifted off them, says Southgate

    Gareth Southgate says England’s stars are no longer playing with the weight of expectation on their shoulders and can approach their semi-final against the Netherlands with freedom.

    Southgate and his squad came under fairly intense scrutiny after a largely disappointing start to their Euro 2024 campaign, which saw them beat Serbia 1-0, draw 1-1 with Denmark and then 0-0 with Slovenia.

    If anything, things got worse in the Round of 16 with the Three Lions needing a 95th-minute equaliser from Jude Bellingham to force extra-time and then edge through 2-1 against lowly Slovakia, though there were encouraging signs as they again came from behind in the quarter-final against Switzerland before going through on penalties.

    Quieting external noise

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

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

    “One of the strengths of us over the last seven, eight years has been less fear, less inhibition. But I think at the beginning of the tournament, the expectation weighed quite heavily and of course the external noise was louder than it’s ever been.

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    “I felt we couldn’t quite get ourselves in the right place and, in the end, what was impressive was that the players ground it out, they ground results out and found ways to win.”

    What is possible?

    Southgate highlighted the gloom on his players faces after the draw against Denmark which ultimately ensured their progress to the knockout stages, saying other nations players celebrated with the fans, but for England it was a minimum expectation.

    “I felt that shifted once we got into the knockout stage and definitely in the quarter-final,” he said. “I thought we saw a better version of us with the ball, freer.

    “I’m not sure any of the messaging changed but I just felt the group changed. You’re now into that moment in the tournament where it’s ‘what’s possible? what’s achievable?’, rather than ‘what might go wrong’.

    “That’s different for players, for an athlete. So, this is now the chance to make history, which we’ve enjoyed doing that, a chance to get to a first final not held in England – the first time England will have ever done that.

    “We’re trying to break new ground. That’s difficult and it’s complicated, but the players have responded brilliantly and the resilience that’s been built.”

    England failed to reach a semi-final of a World Cup or Euros in the 22 years before Southgate took over, they have now made it to the last-four in three of the past four competitions.

    “Our semi-final tally looks a bit more like what we’d hope an England history would look like,” he said. “But there are a lot of nations who have won the European Championship and we haven’t. We want to try and redress that balance.”

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