How the Netherlands shut down England's midfield – and made Watkins the perfect substitution


We tend to remember brilliant stories by their happy endings.

Ollie Watkins coming on in the 81st minute, with England drawing in the semi-finals of the European Championship against the Netherlands, to score a last-minute winner will be carved into the memories of English fans for years.

Yet, the lead-up to a climactic finish is sometimes the building block to a jovial ending; Cinderella’s story isn’t only about marrying the prince.

Watkins’ strike put England in their second final under Gareth Southgate, and the introduction of the Aston Villa centre-forward made complete sense considering the development of the match.

Against the Netherlands, Southgate continued with the same approach England used on the ball in their quarter-final encounter versus Switzerland — albeit Kyle Walker was more advanced on the right of the defence.

In the other dugout, Ronald Koeman’s surprise diamond midfield — with Memphis Depay at the tip and two wide forwards, Cody Gakpo and Donyell Malen, moving inside — caught England off guard as they were initially defending in a back-five shape. But Southgate adjusted his team’s structure without the ball to limit its threat.

Out of possession, Netherlands continued with their regular 4-2-3-1, but Jerdy Schouten and Tijjani Reijnders man-marked Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden, with Xavi Simons trying to narrow down Declan Rice’s passing angles.

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The problem with that approach was that it allowed Kobbie Mainoo to roam freely in midfield, as the 19-year-old had space to attack with Bellingham and Foden dragging Schouten and Reijnders across the centre of the pitch.

Here, Gakpo is close to Mainoo, but this wasn’t the case for the rest of the first half.

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Schouten and Reijnders focused entirely on marking Bellingham and Foden, and with Simons trying to close down on Rice, Mainoo had spaces to attack and time on the ball when he received it.

In this example, John Stones plays the ball to Rice with Simons near Mainoo.

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Bellingham and Foden’s positioning empties Netherlands’ midfield by moving Schouten and Reijnders wider, which allows Harry Kane to drop into that area to receive Rice’s pass.

Simons is initially blocking the passing lane into Mainoo, but now Kane can find the Manchester United midfielder between the lines.

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England’s centre-forward drops and plays the pass to Mainoo, but Simons stretches to intercept it.

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In another example, Schouten and Reijnders are close to Foden and Bellingham, and Simons is moving towards Rice, which leaves Mainoo unmarked in midfield.

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The movement of Foden and Bellingham stretches Netherlands’ double pivot and creates space in midfield, which Kane drops into again.

Still, Mainoo is relatively free because Reijnders has to position himself closer to Bellingham. Rice finds Kane between the lines…

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… and the Bayern Munich striker links the attack to find Mainoo, who is free in midfield. Meanwhile, Foden attacks the space behind the defence…

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… but Mainoo’s lofted pass towards the Manchester City player needed to be further behind the Dutch back line.

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England kept finding Mainoo because of this four-versus-three scenario in midfield.

Here, Simons is defending against Rice, while Schouten and Reijnders are marking Foden and Bellingham, which allows England’s midfield to combine and reach Mainoo in space.

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Reijnders then tries to push up and defend that area, with Schouten dropping to track Foden’s movement, but Mainoo’s pass finds Kane.

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The domino effect of Reijnders leaving Bellingham is that Kane can find the Real Madrid midfielder in an advantageous situation against Netherlands’ centre-backs. However, Kane’s pass into Bellingham is intercepted by Virgil van Dijk.

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In another example, Foden finds Mainoo between Schouten and Reijnders with Netherlands’ double pivot focusing on the City player and Bellingham.

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Mainoo then carries the ball forward and finds Foden’s run…

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… but Denzel Dumfries denies the latter from scoring with a last-ditch stop on the goal line.

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England’s goal in the first half came from a contentious penalty kick, but the attack which led to the penalty was all about the overload in midfield.

In the build-up, Simons and Schouten switch their focus to Mainoo and Rice, leaving Dumfries to mark Bellingham with Reijnders near Foden.

However, Netherlands’ right-back can’t commit to Bellingham because of Kieran Trippier’s advanced position down the left wing. When Mainoo plays the ball to Marc Guehi…

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… Dumfries leaves Bellingham and moves back to defend against Trippier. The four-versus-three overload in midfield allows Guehi to find Bellingham in space, and the Madrid midfielder progresses the attack, which eventually leads to the penalty kick.

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“The match started really good for us, (but) after that we had some difficulties in the midfield to stop the good players like Bellingham and Foden between the lines,” said Koeman after the game. “We didn’t control the game. We made some changes to (get) control back in the game.”

One of the changes Koeman was referencing was adjusting his team’s shape out of possession after Joey Veerman replaced Memphis Depay and Simons moved to the right wing.

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To nullify England’s overload in midfield, Veerman marked Mainoo with Simons moving inside from the right wing to keep an eye on Rice.

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Koeman’s tweak neutralised England’s threat on the ball as they couldn’t use Mainoo or Kane to attack the vacated space in midfield.

Veerman marked Mainoo closely and Stefan de Vrij was more than happy to push up and press Kane because Schouten and Reijnders were tracking Bellingham and Foden’s runs.

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Southgate’s team couldn’t play through the Netherlands as they did for the majority of the first half, and a change in approach was needed.

The introduction of Watkins offered a different profile than Kane, with the Villa striker offering a passing option behind the defence.

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In this example, Watkins signals to Stones that he wants the ball over the top…

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… and the centre-forward makes the run, but the pass falls behind him.

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But Watkins kept attacking the space behind Netherlands’ back four, even when his team-mates didn’t find him.

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In the end, he was rewarded in added time when Cole Palmer found his run…

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… and Watkins rifled the ball into the far corner to win the game for England.

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“We have got good players on the bench and we wanted to make that gamble in normal time rather than wait until extra time,” said Southgate after the game.

“We felt, energy-wise, we were starting to lose a bit of pressure — Harry got that knock in the first half as well. Ollie can press well and he can make those runs in behind that he did.”

In the second half, England couldn’t combine and play through the Netherlands’ midfield, so Watkins’ runs in behind offered an alternative attacking method against tired legs.

If Watkins hadn’t scored that goal, the substitution was still logical considering the Netherlands’ approach without the ball. Luckily for England, he did.

A fitting ending that England will be hoping to relive in the final against Spain.

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