Manic Monday, it wasn’t. After the dramatic goal-fest 24 hours previously, when the games between Croatia-Spain and France-Switzerland delivered 14 goals and a penalty shoot-out, England v Germany was a much cagier affair.
It could have been predicted from the outset, however. England’s swagger in qualifying for this tournament, where they swept five past the Czechs, six past Bulgaria and seven past Montenegro, where Harry Kane bulldozed his way through defences flanked by the pace and verve of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho & Co, has been replaced by caution and pragmatism.
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Gareth Southgate is clearly a believer in defensive resolve winning international tournaments. As a former defender, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise, but when England have the array of attacking talent in their ranks that they currently possess, it will invite criticism.
Southgate went one step further against Germany. Rather than sticking to the system that had served England nicely in the group stages, including three clean sheets, he went even more defensive, picking a back five and two holding midfielders to combat the obvious threats of Germany’s 3-4-3 formation.
The England boss admitted himself that he would have been ‘dead’ if the tactical changes hadn’t worked. What Southgate does have, however, is a strong sense of purpose. He’s his own man and will do things his way.
Southgate and his coaches had seen that Germany’s threat came from the overloads they got in wide positions through their wing-backs pushing high and their inside forwards dragging their opponents’ full-backs centrally. Joachim Low’s side were superb against Portugal’s flat back four and enjoyed 62% possession against world champions France.
Josh Kimmich is an outstanding player but Luke Shaw’s performance, particularly in the second half, nullified his threat. Not only that, but Shaw had a hand in both of England's goals.
On the other flank, Kieran Tripper had Robin Gosens in his back pocket the entire game. The aggression of England’s two wide defenders was exactly what Southgate picked them for, and justified the decision to change formation for the biggest of big games.
"You know that you change the shape, you pick certain players ahead of others, if it goes wrong you’re dead,” Southgate admitted.
“We had to go about it in a way that we believed. We wanted aggressive pressure all over the field and we felt to match them up was the right way to do that, and we felt that speed in behind Harry would cause them a problem and I thought Bakayo and Raheem, right from the start, really created that jeopardy in their backline.
“We knew that they would have moments of pressure because they have really good footballers, experienced players, but our defenders and the whole team defended incredibly, from the goalkeeper right the way through.”
It was right that Southgate should reference Jordan Pickford. When England’s stoic defence was breached, the Everton man held firm, saving superbly from Tino Werner and Kai Havertz.
The platform was laid for the Three Lions to roar, and they did in style as Sterling and Harry Kane pounced. England may have had Wembley advantage, but it was almost the perfect away performance. Jose Mourinho eat your heart out.
But this was more than just parking the bus. While free-flowing forward play was in short supply – and the cry for the boss to unleash the attacking hounds will rage on – what England did do was combine aggressive defending with patient and probing football. When a spark was needed, the introduction of Jack Grealish came just at the right time – and with Rampaging Raheem a constant menace, the plan was executed to perfection.
It’s on now to Rome. A different gladiatorial battle awaits in the city of the Colosseum. Different tactics will no doubt be employed.
Southgate knows he must get it right again, or he’ll be dead.