Gareth Southgate vowed to support John Stones after his calamitous defensive error sparked England’s collapse in the Nations League semi-final defeat to Holland.
Fan disorder made way for a gripping clash at the sold-out Estadio D. Afonso Henriques in Guimaraes, where far fewer supporters are likely to be in attendance for Sunday’s third-place play-off against Switzerland.
England had been hoping to face Portugal in the finale and looked on course for a shot at their first trophy in 53 years as Southgate’s side reacted well to Matthijs De Ligt cancelling out Marcus Rashford’s first-half penalty.
Jesse Lingard coolly turned home in the 83rd minute but joy quickly turned to despair as the Video Assistant Referee ruled the substitute’s goal out for offside.
Matters would get even worse in extra-time as a shocking mistake by Stones led Kyle Walker to turn into his own net, with England then conceding a third as a Ross Barkley error allowed Quincy Promes to seal Holland a 3-1 win.
But Stones’ error was the decisive moment and former Three Lions defender Southgate refused to throw him under the bus.
“I think we’ve had some players who, at the end of the season, have found it difficult in terms of amount of minutes on the pitch – and others having the complete opposite,” Southgate said.
“I think fatigue has played a part tonight, a lack of match sharpness. I’m asking them to play in a way that puts them under huge pressure at the back.
“If we didn’t play that way, we wouldn’t have got to the semi-finals we’ve got to, and we would never progress to being a top team because you saw the way Holland played that way as well.
“They also made a really poor error at the back. But I have got to be there to support John because he’s going to get criticism after tonight.
“But himself and Harry (Maguire), the way we ask them to play, they take huge strain of the game on their shoulders and they’re incredibly courageous to do that.
“So, that’s the way I believe they can play and we should play, and we didn’t lose because of how we wanted to play. The errors were uncharacteristic, really, and not errors that we would make.
“It wasn’t risk, it was just poor execution and fatigue. Certainly, the last one was just fatigue.
“So, I’ve got to not overreact to those things and I have got to be there to support them in what is a difficult moment for everybody.”
Southgate found it hard to get to his head around the “twists and turns” of the semi-final immediately afterwards and was understandably frustrated by the narrow VAR call against Lingard.
There was praise for some players and focus on the learning curve for others, but on the whole it was a gut-wrenching loss a year on from the World Cup semi-final exit to Croatia.
“It was tough to take in the end,” Southgate said. “You get to a semi-final, another semi-final, it should be a positive, but of course everyone leaves even more deflated.
“I can understand that but I have to look at the bigger picture of what the players have given me and the way that they’ve tried incredibly for their country.”
While defeat means Southgate will again line up in Guimaraes, counterpart Ronald Koeman can look forward to what he believes is Holland’s deserved place in the inaugural Nations League final.
“That was a positive match,” the former Everton and Southampton boss said.
“We had control throughout, though we tended to use the flanks when it was through the middle that we were hurting them.
“They went ahead but we kept our cool and, aside from that (Jadon Sancho) header that was close, we were quite comfortable. I thought we deserved it.”