4 key battles England must win against Netherlands

  • England take on the Netherlands in the semi-finals of Euro 2024
  • Plenty of familiarity between Premier League rivals
  • Dutch will aim to dominate in wide areas
Bukayo Saka will face up against a familiar foe in the Euro 2024 semi-finals
Bukayo Saka will face up against a familiar foe in the Euro 2024 semi-finals / Clive Mason/GettyImages

England are just a game away from reaching back-to-back finals at the European Championships. Only Ronald Koeman's Netherlands stand in their way.

The Three Lions have hardly dazzled in Germany this summer, but their ability to produce when it matters most has seen them progress into the last four. There's been no tactical mastery, while standout individual performances have been far and few between, but players have stepped up in key moments to see England home.

Fixtures against the Dutch are rarities, and Wednesday's duel will be the first at a major tournament between the two serial underachievers since 1996. England will be aiming to evoke the spirit of '96 in Dortmund and sail into Sunday's final, while Koeman's Oranje, who have improved in the knockouts, and hoping to reach their first Euros final since 1988.

It's bound to be a contest defined by mere moments, but there will be key duels littered all over the pitch. Here are four England have to win if they're to triumph at Signal Iduna Park.

1. Bukayo Saka vs Nathan Ake

Bukayo Saka, Nathan Ake
Nathan Ake has previously enjoyed his duels with Bukayo Saka / Danehouse Photography Ltd/GettyImages

The litany of Premier League stars in Koeman's squad and likely starting XI means we should see several familiar battles in Munich on Wednesday.

There may not be a more crucial one-v-one duel that Bukayo Saka's likely match-up against Nathan Ake. Each representing the Premier League's top two sides over the past two years, the pair have faced off in crunch time.

However, the most memorable battle between the pair actually arrived in an FA Cup tie at the start of 2023. Due to injuries, Saka and Ake have each missed recent league duels between City and Arsenal, so this isn't a match-up we've seen all that much.

Ake dominated the duel in the aforementioned cup tie, with the Dutchman matching Saka physically and refusing to let him pass in one-on-one situations. Ake is an excellent defender, and Saka, who was excellent in the quarter-final victory over Switzerland, will have to be at his very best to overwhelm the City defender down England's right.

Saka also won't benefit from the connections established at Arsenal which can see him break in behind an opposing full-back following a swift combination. If he's to beat Ake on Wednesday, he'll have to do the heavy lifting himself.

2. Declan Rice vs Xavi Simons

Xavi Simons
Xavi Simons operates between the lines / Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/GettyImages

Expectations were high for Simons pre-tournament, and there have been signs of the young playmaker coming to life after a quiet group stage.

Simons operates as one of the advanced corners of Koeman's box midfield - typically marauding between the lines. He's a canny operator and slick mover, but he can be hesitant in front of goal.

The youngster has recorded three assists at Euro 2024 and recorded more shot-creating actions than any Dutch player in Germany (20). He's their chief creator and Cody Gakpo relies on him for service, but he hasn't faced up against an opponent as supreme without possession as Declan Rice this summer. Konrad Laimer and N'Golo Kante (in his twilight) run him close.

While Rice has been criticised for his lack of ambition with the ball, his work off of it has been outstanding. He's a remarkable recovery runner and is ever-improving positionally. With Kobbie Mainoo tasked with progressing the ball upfield and boasting defensive flaws, Southgate will once again lean on Rice to hold down the fort in central areas and shut down the wily Simons between the lines.

Rice has ten more combined tackles and interceptions (21) than any other England player at Euro 2024.

3. Kyle Walker vs Cody Gakpo

Cody Gakpo
Cody Gakpo has enjoyed an excellent tournament off the left / Justin Setterfield/GettyImages

This has not been a great tournament for Kyle Walker, who's been one of Southgate's trusted lieutenants for almost the entirety of his tenure. Many supporters would be happy to see the back of the veteran, but Southgate is not going to ditch Walker for Wednesday's semi-final.

No matter if England adopt a back three or four, Walker will be seeing plenty of Liverpool's Cody Gakpo in Munich.

Gakpo has shone for the Dutch again at a major tournament and is the current joint leader of the Golden Boot race. He's looked at ease holding the width down the left, but proven to be a distinct threat after jinking inside and firing at goal.

Walker is vulnerable one-on-one and can get caught out at the back post - as Switzerland exploited on Saturday. Gakpo has developed an excellent relationship with Denzel Dumfries on the opposite flank, and the Dutch's second goal in their quarter-final win over Turkey is a situation Walker must be wary of.

Back post combinations have been a feature of the Oranje's game this summer, and they've so far had tremendous success isolating Gakpo against his marker.

4. Attacking set-pieces

The Dutch have shown vulnerabilities from set-pieces / GABRIEL BOUYS/GettyImages

England have struggled for reliable sources of chance creation in Germany, and are yet to score a set-piece goal at the tournament. They miss Harry Maguire, no doubt.

However, there's scope for the Three Lions to have joy from dead-ball situations against the Dutch on Wednesday. Koeman's side are conceding at a rate of 6.1 expected goals per 100 set pieces at Euro 2024 - the sixth-worst rate out of all the teams at the tournament.

Poland scored from an in-swinging corner on Matchday 1, while Turkey scored at the back post from the second phase of a set piece in the quarters.

Can England finally buck their ideas up from the dead ball? They've mustered just three shots totalling 1.08 xG all tournament.