Watkins seals final place for England in performance light years ahead of early rounds

Aston Villa striker finds the net in the 91st minute to knock out the Netherlands

Ollie Watkins of England scores the winner against the Netherlands in Euro 2024. Photograph: Alex Grimm/Getty Images
Euro 2024 semi-final Netherlands 1 England 2

England are into a second successive European Championships final after Ollie Watkins’s injury-time winner defeated the Netherlands in Dortmund.

The Aston Villa centre-forward, on as an 80th minute substitute for the ineffective and exhausted-looking Harry Kane, took a pass from his fellow substitute Cole Palmer, spun and shot viciously inside Bart Verbruggen’s far post.

It was an outstanding strike and even Gareth Southgate must be wondering how dangerous could his team be with a forward as dynamic as Watkins, rather than the shuffling figure of Kane?

For the third match in a row, England conceded the opening goal and fought back to go through. The Dutch opener after seven minutes arose in a highly unexpected way.


Declan Rice took a sloppy touch facing back towards his own goal and Xavi Simons was snapping after him like a little dog. A physical duel between England’s powerhouse Rice and Holland’s size zero attacking midfielder could surely only have one outcome.

Yet somehow it was Rice’s big frame that ended up crashing to the ground like a rotten oak, and Simons who came away with the ball. England’s defence retreated, giving Simons no option but to try a shot from the edge of the box. The ball soared into the top corner through a flapping Jordan Pickford.

There was an element of controversy around England’s equaliser 11 minutes later. Bukayo Saka’s shot deflected towards Kane and as he volleyed it goalwards his follow-through connected with the raised studs of Denzel Dumfries. Initially no foul was awarded but, as Kane writhed dramatically on the ground, the VAR decided this was a clear and obvious error, even though Kane was the one who had kicked Dumfries, and sent referee Felix Zwayer to the screen.

Zwayer demonstrated he bore no grudge against Jude Bellingham for – not entirely inaccurately – calling him a match-fixer in 2021. He awarded England the penalty and while Verbruggen guessed right, Kane’s low shot had too much power. 1-1.

There followed half an hour of total English dominance – the best football they have played at the Euros so far.

England’s four-man midfield was dancing around the Netherlands three, with Phil Foden and Kobbie Mainoo effortlessly infiltrating space and controlling the game. The Netherlands were pinned back, unable to get out, forced to boot it long to forwards who could not win it against the powerful English defenders. Physically, technically and tactically, England had full-spectrum dominance.

Ronald Koeman had to change something and it was no surprise when Wout Weghorst came out for the second half in place of Donyell Malen. With Joey Veerman already on as a sub for Memphis Depay, the Dutch switched to a four-man midfield of Reijnders, Veerman, Simons and Schoutens, matching England’s numbers.

The change was immediately apparent in that while England had been playing in the Dutch half before the break, the game was now English defenders passing it around at the back while the Dutch worked to close them down. Mainoo and Foden were no longer running the game, and Rice was suddenly the England midfielder seeing most of the ball.

As the half wore on without England creating chances or venturing forward much it started to feel as though there was a “2-0 up and cruising” vibe about them, even though it was still 1-1. The tempo that had been crushing the Netherlands in the first half was gone.

On 65 minutes Pickford saved from van Dijk’s stabbed effort. The England goalkeeper fumbled a Cody Gakpo cross behind for a corner, then a few minutes later Simons had a chance from the edge of the box but didn’t catch the shot right.

Throughout this spell England created no chances. Jude Bellingham made little contribution other than to be booked for a wild tackle. Kane looked exhausted and it was no surprise when he was hooked for Watkins on 80 minutes, though Foden was a surprising choice to come off for Cole Palmer.

Just when you thought England might be about to wobble under the pressure, the referee soothed them, awarding some generous decisions to snuff out some promising Dutch situations, to the outrage of the crowd in orange.

Just as that Dutch crowd was psyching itself up for extra-time, Watkins burst their bubble with that lethal late intervention.

And so England, like a heavyweight contender raised up on a series of handpicked chumps, have fought their way through to Sunday’s final in Berlin. You don’t always get the chance to play your way into form over the course of a tournament, but a kind draw has given Southgate the luxury of being able to find his best team by trial and error.

Remember, it’s only two weeks since he was starting Conor Gallagher ahead of Mainoo in central midfield. The performance in the first half in Dortmund was light years ahead of anything they showed in the group stages. England are coming good at the right time.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer