Southgate's bold, belated subs fire England to Euro 2024 final

Leboeuf compliments England's 'deserving' win (1:06)

Frank Leboeuf says England got the job done in what he calls the Three Lions' best game so far. (1:06)

DORTMUND, Germany -- Gareth Southgate finally broke the pattern.

England's Euro 2024 semifinal against Netherlands was threatening to drift away from them in the style of previous tournament exits since the 53-year-old manager took charge in 2016. After being dominated in a first half that ended tied at 1-1, Dutch boss Ronald Koeman changed his approach at half-time, sending on Wout Weghorst, closing up the spaces Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Kobbie Mainoo had been exploiting and asked a different question of England and Southgate.

For a while, it flummoxed them. England had nine shots in Wednesday's 2-1 win but none between the 41st minute and 87th. Southgate waited a long time before making his move.

Memories of Croatia in 2018, France in 2022 and even the previous Euros final in between -- which England lost on penalties -- began to resurface as Southgate seemed unable to reverse the momentum ebbing away from his side.

The conversations he has on the touchline with trusted assistant Steve Holland can seem interminable. There is no doubt other managers are more proactive, instinctive even.

But having been largely forced into bringing on Luke Shaw at half-time as Kieran Trippier suffered a groin problem that makes him a doubt for Sunday's final, Southgate's double change with 10 minutes to go was, eventually, bold.

Harry Kane is England's all-time leading goal scorer and captain, but despite scoring the first-half penalty that cancelled out Xavi Simons' sublime opener, he was flatfooted, tired and far too easy to mark. Southgate suggested afterward that the Denzel Dumfries challenge on Kane, which led to his penalty, had left a mark on the forward.

Foden was also caught in the wider malaise but had been so dangerous in the first half, having a shot cleared off the line before hitting the post from long range. Taking them both off for Ollie Watkins and Cole Palmer was not an easy call given their reputations and standings, but it was the right one.

Palmer fired over in the 88th minute but then played a clever pass through for Watkins, who turned Stefan de Vrij and fired a stunning shot across Dutch goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen and just inside his right-hand post. Cue pandemonium.

Somewhere in the maelstrom, Southgate reacted by introducing Conor Gallagher and Ezri Konsa to see out stoppage-time and spark more jubilant scenes at full-time. After allowing the players to take centre stage in front of the euphoric England supporters, Southgate took a moment to celebrate passionately in front of them.

This is a tournament campaign that has been blighted by fitness issues from the outset and heavy criticism from supporters throughout. Now, beer was being thrown in the air, not at Southgate.

"We all want to be loved, right? When you are doing something for your country and you are a proud Englishman, when you don't feel that back and all you read is criticism, it is hard," Southgate said after the match. "To be able to celebrate a second final is very, very special. Especially the fans that travel.

"Our travelling support is amazing, the money they spend, the commitment to do that, to be able to give them a night like this -- and we have given them a few over the last six years from Russia onwards -- it means a lot. If I hadn't been on the grass, I'd have been watching, celebrating like they were.

"We're kindred spirits in many ways. Of course, I'm the one that has to pick a team. To be able to give them a night like tonight is very, very special."

England's opening 45 minutes was the best football they have produced all tournament. Admittedly, the bar for that was pretty low after a series of underwhelming displays, but there was an energy and dynamism about them after Simons' superb seventh-minute strike put Netherlands in front.

Kane's equaliser came from a penalty that could only really have been awarded in the VAR era, but England were good value for it until Netherlands shut the game down, making this a similar watch to England's stifled displays against Denmark, Slovenia, Slovakia and Switzerland in particular.

"They were a three-box-three in the second half so we weren't able to be quite as incisive in the second half but we kept the ball really well and made them run," Southgate said. "Maybe in the end, that's the bit that's fatigued them and has been critical in the goal that we scored. There was a lot going on in the game. In the end, it is the players who make the decisions on the pitch, and they did it brilliantly."

Of course, the cycle will only truly be broken if England can go all the way and win their first major men's honour since 1966. This is not a vintage Netherlands side and England have, once again, benefitted from a kinder half of the draw. Final opponents Spain look in the sort of form to give England by some distance their toughest match this summer.

Southgate was asked about the prospect of beating Spain. "We'll have to get the ball off them first," began his reply.

But having scrambled for answers all tournament -- changing Declan Rice's midfield partner three times, switching systems from a back four to a three-man defence -- Southgate came up with the game-changing moment when it really mattered.

It may be a one-off. Criticisms of him will remain, despite a tournament record that now reads: semifinal, final, quarterfinal, final. But England are now in a position where Southgate only needs to be right one more time to achieve immortality.