DORTMUND, Germany (AP) — England coach Gareth Southgate is expecting his players to peak in the final stages of the European Championship after blaming their sluggish performances so far on increased expectations from the nation.

England came to Euro 2024 with what many regarded as its strongest squad for 20 years, only to limp through the group stage, require an equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time before getting past Slovakia in the last 16 and then needing a penalty-shootout win over Switzerland to advance from the quarterfinals.

Southgate said his players are now thinking about “what’s achievable rather than what might go wrong” and expects a better display against the Netherlands in the semifinals on Wednesday.

“There has been a definite shift,” Southgate said at a pre-match news conference in Dortmund on Tuesday. “One of the strengths of us over the last seven, eight years has been less fear, less inhibition. But I think at the beginning of the tournament, expectation weighed quite heavily and of course the external noise was louder than it has ever been.

“I felt we couldn’t quite get ourselves in the right place. In the end, what was impressive was the players ground it out and found ways to win. I felt that shifted once we got to the knockout stage, definitely in the quarterfinal — we saw a better version of us with the ball. We’re freer.”

Southgate has tried different ways to get his players more relaxed. They included bringing pop star Ed Sheeran into the camp to play a few songs and letting the team listen with a few beers.

The adversity England has already faced on the field, however, might stand them in better stead, Southgate said.

“You can bond in that way,” Southgate said of the team having an audience with musician Ed Sheeran, “but when you’re having to head the ball out of your box in the 92nd minute or find a goal in the 96th minute (like against Slovakia), there’s nothing stronger than that for building the spirit of the team.”

There was some light amusement when a journalist asked Southgate and Harry Kane, who also was in attendance, whether they knew the German for “European champion” as part of their attempts to learn the language.

Kane, who has lived in Germany for nearly a year after joining Bayern Munich in August 2023, looked slightly flustered and said: “I don’t.”

“Strangely, it wasn’t one I looked for either,” Southgate said. “I know how to turn right at the underground station but that’s about it.”

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AP Euro 2024: https://apnews.com/hub/euro-2024