“Gareth Southgate, the whole of England is with you!” Is it, though? As Southgate prepares to send his injury-free, defensively unbreached, quietly purposeful England team into the last-16 tie against Germany on Tuesday night, two things stand out.
First, it is hard to recall such a talented, well-set England team approaching a tournament knockout tie so grudgingly praised in their own country. Welcome to England 2021, a place where even the football feels a little seasick right now. And second, like it or not, rail against the simplicity, draw attention instead to the process if you must – but this is a moment that will define the progress of Southgate’s England.
It is a poignant detail of Three Lions 98 – uncool younger brother of the original version – that its opening notes are Jonathan Pearce’s shouted message of doom as Southgate, England’s sixth penalty-taker, stepped up to side-foot the ball at Andreas Köpke in June 1996.
Southgate seemed an amusingly minor figure at the time, an element in the wider cosmic joke of England football. Even our operatic failures are enacted by nice men called Gareth from Thornton Heath. It is a further oddity now that his careful, quietly impressive five-year reign as manager should have become another divisive note in the popular culture.
Such is the temperature of the times it is hard to avoid the sense there are some, for whom Southgate represents the wrong kind of England – cautious, safe, unconcerned with either creeping Marxism or the cultural importance of Releasing Jack – who might feel a tinge of validation should England’s Euros end on Tuesday.
The whole of England is with you. Kind of. Until it isn’t.
There is at least a reassuringly bold end note here, a moment of ultimacy for the Age of Gareth. Defeat at Wembley will unleash a backwash of gruelling negativity. But victory will provide an unarguable sheen of authority, validating every decision made en route to that point.
Nobody seriously expects England to win tournaments. But this is eminently doable. Squint a little and England are playing a team who have conceded five goals at these Euros already, who lost at home against North Macedonia and were thrashed 6-0 by Spain, whose own manager is in the zombified late days of his own reign, and whose chief attacking threat managed four Premier League goals in 27 games last season.
It is only the shadow game, the noise behind the noise, that makes Germany at Wembley an Everest to be scaled. But then, things such as history and emotion do matter on these occasions.
This week Kai Havertz called this game “a meeting of equals” but it isn’t really. Talk of a genuine head-to-head here brings to mind Cliff Richard’s recent autobiography where he talked “for the first time” about his deep personal rivalry with Elvis Presley, who he never met or had anything to do with.
Could the shadowy hand of The King have been behind Cliff’s “jinxed” US tours where no one bought any tickets? How else to explain the fact Elvis was “never home” when Cliff turned up at Graceland, leaving his feared rival to pay for a guided tour instead? England-Germany has shades of Cliff-Elvis dynamic, serial winners versus hopeful not-quites.
England have won two of their past 10 competitive matches against Germany or West Germany. And get this: the England men’s football team have only once in their history beaten in a knockout tournament game a nation that had previously won the World Cup. Once! That victory was the 1966 World Cup final.
The identity of their opponents, the weight, the heft of playing “The Germans” comes into this. But the real baggage England carry is their own 70-year tale of tournament failure – failure that stems not from some psychological blockage, or from the war, or bad luck, but from not being good enough when it mattered.
England are good enough, and Germany bad enough, to break that sequence. This is also, lest we forget, a team that has tended to swipe those cobwebs away.
Under Southgate, England won a World Cup penalty shootout. They reached a semi-final despite having no genuine world stars. For those who feel an urge to say “well they only beat B-listers”, England have also failed to beat their fellow B-listers many times. See: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Slovenia, USA and so on. Progress is actually winning these games. It is misguided English exceptionalism that says only Brazil and Spain really count.
Germany have clearly dipped out of that front rank. Other opponents have exposed some vulnerability. There is even a clear indication of how England might try to score against Jogi Löw’s team. Look back and every goal Germany have conceded at this Euro Championship has come via a diagonal pass into space down the side of the centre-backs.
In the main this has been on the attacking left side. France’s winning goal, Kylian Mbappé’s disallowed goal, even the Cristiano Ronaldo breakaway: these all involved a pass into space left vacant by a glitch in the way Germany’s three-man backline intersects with its wing-backs.
Hungary’s goals both came from long diagonal passes, aggressive running and slack defence. There is a route to goal here, one that Raheem Sterling in particular might try to exploit given his strength is the ability to veer into exactly that space on the inside left channel.
Again, much will depend on the level of England’s attacking ambition. There will be the usual call to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of Gareth. The best way of winning against a team whose weakness is defence might well be to attack.
At the same time Southgate will note that Germany have also tended to score via crosses from advanced positions. This may or may not be a moment to go for the throat. But the battle on the flanks, and the ability to counterpunch in those spaces could be a factor.
The stage is clear for both teams. Havertz’s knee injury has healed. Only Antonio Rüdiger (cold) and Ilkay Gündogan (head injury) sat out the final training session in Bavaria. For Southgate and England, five years down the line, a moment of clarity is, for better or worse, at hand.