Euro 2024 day 23: England’s ‘cheat code’ water bottle and can the Netherlands go all the way?

The semi-finals line-up for Euro 2024 is complete.

With France and Spain having assured themselves of places in the last four yesterday, England and the Netherlands followed them with victories today.

Both quarter-finals were tight and dramatic, in different ways. England once again looked laboured and devoid of imagination for much of their meeting with Switzerland, only to squeeze through thanks to Bukayo Saka’s brilliant individual goal — which cancelled out Breel Embolo’s opener — and then some heroics in the penalty shootout.

The Dutch, meanwhile, came from behind against Turkey to reach their first European Championship semi-final in 20 years, setting up a meeting with England in Dortmund on Wednesday.

Our writers dissect the major talking points.

England’s penalty secret? It’s all about the bottle

There didn’t seem to be much in it at first.

Cole Palmer had just scored England’s first penalty in their shootout with Switzerland and Manuel Akanji was sauntering forward to make his response. Jordan Pickford, the England goalkeeper, began to trot over too, before suddenly doubling back.

Pickford had forgotten something — his water bottle, which was rather oddly wrapped in a towel. Having picked it up, he moved back to his goal and placed the bottle, still wearing its towel, next to the side netting.

Having made Akanji wait a bit longer by moving forward to inspect the penalty spot, Pickford settled back on his goal line. Akanji had a short run-up and struck the ball with his right foot, but Pickford was one step ahead. He plunged to his left, parried the penalty away and England had an advantage they were never to relinquish.

Good fortune? Not so much. This was actually a triumph of subterfuge for England and their team of analysts who had studied the penalties of all Switzerland’s players, noted where they tended to place them and printed out their findings for Pickford to stick on his water bottle.

The analysis was captured by a photographer at the ground but Pickford was taking no chances in the moments before Akanji’s penalty — hence his decision to wrap the bottle in that towel.

And England’s backroom staff had clearly done their homework well. They had deciphered that Akanji was likely to shoot to his right, so the best way for Pickford to play the percentages was to dive left — which he duly did.

Pickford’s water bottle with the instruction for Akanji’s penalty (we have circled it here)

Having got it right first time, it was surprising Pickford did not follow his bottle’s advice on all the penalties.

Fabian Schar took their second one but rather than pretending to dive right before actually diving to his left — as his bottle instructed — Pickford did the reverse, faking left and jumping right. Schar’s penalty unfolded as the bottle had predicted, to his right, where the net was vacant.

Pickford did follow his bottle for the final two Swiss penalties: Xherdan Shaqiri struck his to the right, but it was too well placed and his shot just evaded Pickford’s fingertips.

The only penalty where the bottle was proved wrong was for Zeki Amdouni on the fourth kick. Pickford held his ground and dived low to his left, as he had been briefed, but Amdouni outwitted him by going to his right.

Thankfully for England, that one save was enough. And if their semi-final against the Netherlands on Wednesday also goes the distance, do not be surprised to see Pickford’s bottle and towel make another appearance.

Andrew Fifield

Saka stars — but where is Kane?

When Saka starts well, England start well. He was their best player in the first half against Serbia in their opening match of Euro 2024, when he repeatedly had the beating of marker Andrija Zivkovic, and today he was again.

It was no coincidence that the first half today was England’s best since they started the tournament nearly three weeks ago. Pushed high and wide in possession, in a formation that almost looked like a 3-4-3, Saka was up against left wing-back Michel Aebischer. And he easily had the beating of him.

So many times in the first half, Saka took advantage of the fact that England were getting the ball to him far faster than they had been against Slovakia in the previous round. Saka got into good positions, put crosses in and forced corners. The only frustration was that England were never able to turn any of those crosses into serious shots on goal.

Bukayo Saka was a star for England (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Striker Harry Kane, who was prone to dropping deep throughout the match, ending up playing in defence at points in the second half, was unable to get on the end of any of Saka’s deliveries. Kane was substituted in extra time after an accidental touchline collision with England’s manager, Gareth Southgate.

Without the ball, Saka had to run back and cover Ruben Vargas, but he did that diligently. And when England needed him most, Saka delivered with the crucial equaliser, just when his team looked completely out of ideas.

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Can the Netherlands go all the way?

An unconvincing run, a manager who not many are convinced by, a couple of come-from-behind wins and a feeling that being in the good half of the draw is the only reason they are in the semi-finals… for England, read the Netherlands.

But here they are, in the final four of the Euros for the first time since 2004. So, how good are their prospects of winning just a second major tournament in their history?

Well, Turkey preyed on their weaknesses in today’s quarter-final, especially via set pieces and crosses, while Austria also took advantage of a badly organised defence when consigning them to third in the group stage. But the Dutch have got plenty going for them too.

The Netherlands celebrate beating Turkey (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Again like England, when they’re confident and in full flow, showing composure and intensity, they can be great to watch, as was the case when beating Romania 3-0 in the round of 16.

Tonight, they had to show resolve, spirit… and some tactical acumen from manager Ronald Koeman with his second-half changes.

Three-goal Cody Gakpo is an obvious threat (who Turkey dealt with well until he crept in at the back post to take advantage of some dozy defending and help score the winner, via Mert Muldur’s own goal), while if Jerdy Schouten, Tijjani Reijnders and Xavi Simons are given time and space in midfield they can play — and then some.

Denzel Dumfries is always a pacy danger from full-back and then there’s big Wout Weghorst to throw into the mix off the bench for some aerial carnage.

England will have plenty to think about.

On current form, Wednesday’s semi-final in Dortmund looks too close to call.

Tim Spiers

Guler departs… as a star

While a Barcelona teenager — Spain’s Lamine Yamal — has rightly been garnering attention throughout the tournament for his sparkling performances, one from their arch-rivals Real Madrid has emerged as someone equally thrilling.

Arda Guler of Turkey may not have played too often for Madrid last season, mostly owing to injury, but he ended his debut year at the Bernabeu in fabulous form (five goals in five games) and brought that momentum to Euro 2024.

Arda Guler has been a star at Euro 2024 (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

His second assist of the tournament against the Netherlands today was a beauty. Turkey and Guler, after a slow start, had come into the game via a series of threatening set pieces which the Dutch struggled to cope with, and the opening goal was an extension of that.

Picking up a cleared corner on the right of the box, Guler was itching to try to work the ball onto his favoured left foot and whip it into the box.

With no angle to do that, the 19-year-old, who also hit the post with a free kick in the second half, reluctantly took a swish with his right… and delivered a picture-perfect outswinging cross that completely befuddled goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen, who resembled someone who had half-crossed a road only to recoil and hesitate when seeing a speeding motorbike careering their way.

Verbruggen neither jumped to claim the ball nor reversed to his goal line. He was helpless. Step forward Samet Akaydin at the back post, only playing because of Merih Demiral’s suspension, and he planted an easy header into the net.

Guler’s tournament may be over now, but you sense that this is just the start of a glittering career, for club and country.

Tim Spiers

What’s next?

  • Spain vs France (Tuesday, 8pm BST; 3pm ET)
  • Netherlands vs England (Wednesday. 8pm BST; 3pm ET)

(Top photo: Carl Recine/Getty Images)

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