The third of July, three years ago, on a muggy night in Moscow. England’s victory over Colombia — their first-ever penalty shootout win at the World Cup — was filed as the moment Gareth Southgate earned personal redemption for the debt he owed to the nation. His fruitless kick from twelve yards at Euro 96 now had an appropriate apology to match, albeit a couple of decades on.
Perhaps now an even better opportunity presents itself for Southgate to lay his demons to rest. England versus Germany in a European Championships knockout match returns, for the first time since a fresh-faced Southgate accidentally changed the course of his own life in one single limp kick of a football. Arise Sir Gareth, to amend the way he had wronged and humiliated an island nation, to atone for a personal shortcoming so significant that it had singlehandedly lost a battle on home soil to the archenemy.
Or so the story goes.Embed from Getty Images
First, there is the small matter of the fact that actually Southgate was not appalling to miss but brave to volunteer. Terry Venables’s five penalty-takers had been and gone and scored. Now it was ‘Raise your hand if you want to go next.’ Of course Southgate didn’t want to go next. But the centre-back stepped up and put himself out for the team. The 25 years of vilification that he has since had to endure — the 4,000 letters of abuse he received from angry England fans — were sour repercussions of the man’s original show of courage. Of his selflessness. It was Gareth the man who volunteered to strike that luckless sixth penalty. Not Southgate the player.
But besides the ins and outs of yesterday, there is still the matter of tomorrow. England must beat Germany if they want to progress at Euro 2020. You get the sense they do want to progress. Quite how much they want to progress is shown by how unwilling the England camp are to enter into the stirring history of this fixture down the years. In every third interview by an England player, there is mention of how the team are ‘writing their own history,’ or something of that ilk. That was Southgate’s mantra at the World Cup in Russia and continues to be repeated, internalised, and repeated again.
It works for Southgate personally too. This England versus Germany is very different to his England versus Germany (even though it was anything but his, of course). Some of his team are too young even to remember Frank Lampard’s ghost goal in 2010, the last time England faced the Germans at a tournament. And besides, would beating the Germany of 2021 really be revenge for Southgate, whose miss came against the Germany of 1996? He’ll argue talk of sweet revenge is nonsense.Embed from Getty Images
That side that got royally assassinated on the counterattack by Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller et al were Fabio Capello’s group of superstars. Superstars individually, but man-managed so regimentally and coached so backwardly that all footballing joy was zapped from their limbs before the match had even commenced. Southgate’s group are the antithesis. They have identity, fear nothing and no-one, play their own game, and have friendships so deep that they transcend club rivalries — something the players of the 2000s could only have wished for.
They head into their Germany test in high spirits. They also head in as favourites. This time the build-up is switched. The side grinding out professional 1-0s are England — not Germany. The side whose players swept up major club silverware no questions asked last season are England — not Germany. The side who haven’t conceded in over eight-and-a-half hours of football are England — certainly not Germany. England also topped their group comfortably.
Meanwhile, Germany lost 6-0 to Spain in November, 2-1 to North Macedonia in March, and needed to scrape a late draw with Hungary to even progress to the knockout rounds here. They looked outstanding against a thoroughly shambolic Portugal in their second game at this tournament, but looked tactically clueless in defeat to France and that 2-2 draw with group outsiders the Hungarians.Embed from Getty Images
England reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, the semis of the Nations League in 2019, and came second in their group of four in the 2021 edition. Germany came bottom of their group in Russia, bottom of their group in the 2019 Nations League, and finished the 2021 Nations League group stage having scored ten goals but conceded 13.
It is England who head into the tie as the better team. It may not feel right, but it is right.
There was a moment late on in their final group game against the Czech Republic — who have since knocked the Netherlands out of the tournament — that boded very well indeed for England’s meeting with Germany. Substitute Jadon Sancho, who knows German football all too well, played the ball out wide to the overlapping Marcus Rashford, also introduced from the bench. Rashford took on his man round the outside, and entered the box. He cut the ball back to yet another sub, Jude Bellingham, who played in the unmarked substitute (yes, another one) Jordan Henderson. The Liverpool captain tucked the ball home to kill the game at 2-0.Embed from Getty Images
As it happened, VAR rightly got involved and chalked the goal off for offside. Jordan Henderson told EnglandFootball.org afterwards: “I thought it could have been offside, to be honest. I wasn’t quite sure. I thought it might have hit off the defender’s foot as well. I wasn’t sure if it had come off Jude [Bellingham] or the defender. So that’s what I was questioning. But unfortunately, it was offside. But it’s coming… I can feel it!”
Henderson may still be waiting for his first for his country a whole 60 England caps in, but the goal showed England doing something they’ve done all too rarely in this tournament so far. For all the clean-sheets, game management, and excellent work in the middle of the park, seldom have England’s wide players taken risks or gone at their opponents.
England might well stick with their 4-3-3 against Germany, or they could match-up to their opponents and return to a 3-4-3 system that they know well. Southgate and his assistant, Steve Holland, will have likely made their mind up on that many months ago. But whichever it is, the energy and pace and trickery of whoever is picked out wide could be vital for England as they look to get in behind an ageing German back-line.Embed from Getty Images
Matthias Ginter, Mats Hummels and Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger will not be relishing the task of keeping Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Sancho or Rashford quiet for 90 minutes or more. Much of the media will tell you this encounter will be won in the head. But we aren’t stuck in 1990 anymore. This group is wonderfully unburdened by the past failures of England teams many of them weren’t alive to watch.
The historians will politely remind you that this is a match England will lose — probably on penalties — and that Germany’s form isn’t relevant whatsoever when England are the opponents. But Gareth Southgate’s England are viewing their second-round match merely as an isolated fixture against a decent team, held in England, in front of an overwhelmingly English audience. For this England, there is no Gerd Müller or Möller or Matthäus about this fixture. It’s just as well…