Three lessons from England’s performance against Germany24th March 2017
Kick-off at the Signal Iduna Park was scheduled for 19:45 (GMT) on Wednesday. Come 19:49, however, Lukas Podolski was still addressing the endearing German fans who had gathered to witness his farewell to die Mannschaft, and it became clear that England were merely the party guests of the occasion. The script had already been written; a fabled tale of the German hero and his hammer of a left-foot, which for one last time would lay defeated the old enemy. Receiving the ball from an André Schürrle lay-off in the 69th minute, Podolski did just that, rifling into the postage stamp of the top corner to Joe Hart’s left. It was a prelude to the celebrations that would follow the match; Podolski would stand aloft on the pitch-side barriers, saluting the crowd, whilst his nan would lead the tributes pouring in live on German TV.
But no one had told Gareth Southgate, who treated the match with admirable professionalism, and several key talking points arose from the ninety minutes:
Dele Alli is a top drawer talent on the international stage
This was, quite plausibly, Dele Alli’s best performance in an England shirt. Given he scored from 20 yards against France on his first start, and was named Man of the Match the last time England were in Germany (3-2, Olympiastadion), that is a strong statement. But Alli was irresistible at times, and his development is tacking a steep path, at both club and now international level.
Mauricio Pochettino deserves a great deal of credit here, for it is he who has recognised that Alli’s future lies further up the pitch from where he first deployed as a breakthrough star. This season, Alli has been playing as a shadow striker behind Harry Kane, and Tottenham’s 3-4-3 formation has blurred to become a 3-5-2; Eriksen & Alli’s erstwhile positions in an attacking trio are now unrecognisable from the other. Alli’s positional awareness is lethal, and he possesses a unique intelligence: a handy knack of exploiting ‘grey’ space of the final third – the areas where it is unclear which defender should be picking him up – as typified by his torment of the hitherto unimpregnable Victor Moses & Cesar Azpilicueta in the victory over Chelsea.
As was strongly suggested here after that game, Gareth Southgate too recognised that Alli is tailor-made for the number 10 jersey in the England team, and cannot be shuffled further defensively in sacrifice of personnel over system. Here, at the Signal Iduna Park, he was at his lively and arrogant best, tormenting each of Rudiger, Hector and Kimmich individually in a fluid role across the forward line. He first slipped Kimmich in the 6th minute with a neat turn to play Vardy in behind, resulting in a penalty appeal, and then too found space in the box behind Hector in the 41st minute. He squandered the golden chance, firing straight at ter Stegen, but the movement was excellent, and Alli’s composure will only improve in time, synonymous with burgeoning confidence. This confidence will continue to be instilled for as long as Pochettino, and now Southgate, retain faith in his abilities, and the England manager must look to mould his team around the prodigious talent.
It is now hard to envisage an international future for Wayne Rooney
As a consequence, it is now hard to envisage an international future for Wayne Rooney. Southgate has displayed impressive conviction where his predecessors failed in the decision to omit high-profile players from the England squad. There is some irony, however, that on a night of celebration for a German Hercules, an English equivalent falls on his sword.
Southgate is not afraid to experiment & introduce new ideas
Early in his pre-match conference, Gareth Southgate bemoaned the nature of having just a single training session with his players, a result of hectic scheduling, and the Sunday Premier League fixtures. The logical inference, then, was not to expect any drastic changes ahead of the clash with Germany. But Southgate would go on to state there were “opportunities to affect things tactically and in terms of our physical preparation, the style of our play and mentality that we bring.” It was a refreshing statement, and it was echoed in England’s set-up: a 3-4-3 formation, incorporating the fresh faces of Jake Livermore & Michael Keane. Keane was handed his match-day shirt by Glenn Hoddle, a Southgate initiative implemented to demonstrate to the players what wearing the shirt should mean. We saw for the first time that Southgate is not afraid to experiment, to introduce new ideas, and that is promising for the England squad of the future.
“We’re an island. We’ve got to get off the island and learn elsewhere,” said Southgate
The three-man defence is somewhat vogue in the Premier League this season, and it has clearly not been lost on Southgate – who has expressed a desire to broaden the horizons for education: “We’re an island. We’ve got to get off the island and learn elsewhere. We can be more powerful than anybody but we have to work hard.” Of course, the Premier League is English, but the exponents of the intricate tactics and formations exhibited weekly, including the three-man defence, are not, and far too often England has been guilty of turning its nose up at such foreign imports.
England should continue the 3-man defence experiment
After the game, Gareth Southgate branded himself as someone who is never “over-positive” when defeated, a trap that is easily fallen into. Of course, England don’t want to make a habit for losing games they should have won, but it is hard to argue with any of Southgate’s sentiments drawing a great deal of encouragement from the game. Germany played well within themselves – at a ceremonial pace, it has to be said – but England were dynamic, creative, and shifted the ball around the pitch very effectively for the first sixty minutes. It will be Southgate’s long-term aim to develop a ruthlessness about England, but the potential is clearly there.
The three-man defence experiment was more than good enough to suggest we should continue with it against Lithuania, even potentially with a view to the World Cup next year. Michael Keane looked very assured on the ball in possession, and Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling were solid if unconvincing. Gone are times when England could call upon genuinely world-class centre-backs, the ones that were solid and dependable in one-on-one situations, but there is certainly not a dearth in the department, and it makes sense to utilise our strengths and provide extra defensive cover. What was more evident in the game was the extra width afforded to the England attacks in the system, and Kyle Walker and Adam Lallana consistently doubled up on the right flank in the first half of the game. Walker was excellent all game, his aggression, tenacity and marauding runs causing huge problems for Jonas Hector, and he is now one of the first names down on the team sheet. On the opposite flank, Ryan Bertrand was competent, and kept Julian Brandt out of the game, but he lacked the same vigour going forward, and ultimately the return of Danny Rose will see the system in its best light.