Ollie Watkins proved you don’t need to have lots of the ball to make an impact in England’s Euro 2024 semi-final win over the Netherlands.

England fans had been crying out for it all tournament, urging Gareth Southgate to make substitutions earlier in matches when chasing a decisive goal. Either the manager had been accused of not having a plan B, or he wasn’t giving his plan B enough time to come to fruition.

“No, not that change!” some were likely shouting at their televisions or pub screens as Harry Kane made his way towards the touchline to be replaced by Ollie Watkins, who’d only featured for a grand total of 20 minutes in the tournament before the semi-final.

Ignoring tactics for a moment, the reason some may have found Watkins’ selection surprising or jarring against the Netherlands was that Ivan Toney had seemingly been elevated to Southgate’s nominal go-to man when in need, having made a couple of substitute appearances in the knockouts alone to the tune of 41 minutes.

He played a pretty big role in both cameos as well, with his header across goal teeing up Kane’s extra-time winner against Slovakia in the slender last-16 victory, while he also scored in the shootout that saw off Switzerland in the quarter-finals.

Watkins, and not Toney, coming on for Kane with nearly 10 minutes left of normal time against the Netherlands and potentially extra-time and penalties to come; it was a bold, brave move by Southgate, and perhaps that’s the overriding reason it made some feel uncomfortable. It was almost like this was a side of Southgate some didn’t expect to see.

Four touches later, he was the hero for the Three Lions.

Within a minute of Watkins coming on, you could see hints of how he’d make England look a little different. He was harrying the centre-backs and goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen, applying intense pressure as they looked to pass out from the back.

Since half-time, the Oranje had been allowed to settle into the game more, England’s control of almost everything from the first half yielding somewhat – Watkins at the very least was going to make himself a nuisance, with his nine high-intensity pressures in as many minutes only seven fewer than Bukayo Saka in 92 minutes, for instance.

Ollie Watkins high-intensity pressures

Again, about a minute later, there was another sign as he dropped a few yards and then immediately turned and sprinted beyond the last man hoping for a long pass from John Stones; it didn’t arrive, but at least the Netherlands defence was being asked to adapt to a new kind of threat.

With his first touch of the ball in the 83rd minute, Watkins dropped deep again and found himself robbed by the hulking presence of Stefan de Vrij, who presumably felt like he’d given the striker a robust welcome to the game.

Shortly after, De Vrij was having to run rather desperately back towards his own goal; this time Stones did play the long pass, spotting Watkins’ run off the shoulder. The defender was just about quick enough to get back and head the danger clear, but while Watkins didn’t get the ball, it’s clear his runs were making his presence felt.

He was back to dropping deep again a few moments later, though, linking up with Declan Rice twice in quick succession as England enjoyed a spell of possession. Right after that, he burst into the area and that same move ended with Luke Shaw’s low cross zipping mere inches away from Watkins’ right foot in the area, with neither Dutch centre-back particularly sure whose responsibility he was.

Dropping deep, going in behind; dropping deep, going in behind. In, out, in, out – Watkins was doing the Hokey Cokey with the Netherlands defence, and with the next run he made, his chance arrived.

Ollie Watkins goal
Jonny Whitmore / Senior Data Editor

England kept the ball well, playing out from the back and then through the lines via Rice. His pass to Kobbie Mainoo couldn’t be controlled by the youngster, but his touch gratefully fell to Cole Palmer. As soon as the Chelsea star took up possession, Watkins – who at this point wasn’t even in the attacking third – hit the accelerator.

Watkins screenshot final 1

He was behind De Vrij one moment, and then the next he was in front, the centre-back reacting with desperation when he looked over his right shoulder to see Watkins was pretty much already ahead of him.

Palmer was patient, then his pass perfect; between Nathan Aké and Virgil van Dijk, and weighted so Watkins could run on to it in the area.

He was too quick for De Vrij, who was only fast enough to apply minimal physical pressure; Watkins was in control, knowing anything heavier from his marker and he’d probably get a penalty.

His touch was delicate yet decisive – he knew what he wanted to do as he nudged the ball across his body to tee up an instant shot that went through the legs of the despairing De Vrij and nestled emphatically in the bottom-left corner.

Ollie Watkins goal vs Netherlands

Watkins didn’t touch the ball again, but that’s sort of the point. He was brought on to occupy the Netherlands defence without needing to even be in possession, yet possessing the ability in front of goal to be the difference if an opportunity arrived. And arrive it did.

Four touches, one goal, one final. *Ollie Watkins drops mic*

Ollie Watkins touches vs Netherlands

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