This is an England team to be proud of and a boss that continues to master tournament football while silencing the critics. What a statement.
1) This is the first England team in my conscious existence that has engendered feelings of pride, dignity and respect. Supporting the national team used to be a chore, a burden assigned at birth, a penalty shootout-shaped millstone to embarrassingly drag through childhood and puberty and well into adult life. Those occasions when England made us believe had to be snatched at like a striker desperately struggling for form, and held on to until the precise moment that cripplingly inevitable disappointment was delivered by the boot of a better, stronger and more unified nation, one with a plan and a direction and a purpose. There was a tangible disconnect between the fans, players and various managers tasked with adding to a history of glorious failure.
Euro ’96 is still fetishised to within an inch of its meaning for a reason: not necessarily because England reached a semi-final, but because they brought a fractured nation together and gave overbearing patriots, those with no interest in football and everyone in between one common thread to clutch for one glorious month.
We still believe, as the song goes. For a self-deprecating nation populated by people desperate to be seen to never care about anything to admit that much was huge. It still is.
Midway through the second half against Germany it was said by some that England were wasting an opportunity to create more memories, spawn another replay or two that could be used in the highlight reels a few decades from now. A couple of goals arrived soon after as those warnings were heeded. But even without them this is an England team and manager that it is satisfying and fulfilling to support. These are talented but grounded, modest players and a softly-spoken but authoritative and single-minded coach who would otherwise be forgiven for spending his next year serving slices of humble pie throughout the country.
England might get knocked out in the quarter-finals. They could fall in the semi-finals again. Perhaps they trip at the final hurdle, or even go on to win the entire tournament. But they have already secured their biggest victory: giving the nation a team to be proud of on and off the pitch.
2) That sounds twee because it is. But a quick scan through that team reveals players who have faced undue pressure beyond what can ordinarily be expected of a footballer, each emerging as a personal and professional credit unto themselves.
There are those who have endured torment from their own colleagues; Luke Shaw must be on Jose Mourinho’s mind once more after that. Some have been criticised heavily, often even by their own supporters, but Jordan Pickford and Harry Kane were praised by the final whistle. Kyle Walker’s England career was supposed to be over. John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier have been through an incredible amount on a personal level over the past year or so, all in the public eye. Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice are still doubted by many to be of the requisite quality to perform at this level but that Leeds and West Ham midfield prevailed against its Bayern Munich and Madrid counterpart. Raheem Sterling was recently a media pariah and victim of a physical and verbal attack for daring to be black. Long may his habit of scoring crucial goals at the stadium that was his back yard continue.
These players have been forged in the court of public and private opinion, each doubted to varying degrees.
Knitting it all together is Gareth Southgate, whose selections continue to be lambasted, whose substitutions keep being questioned and whose approach is supposedly cowardly and sacrilegious. He is not the perfect manager but he is the ideal leader for this group and the future. As a statesman and spokesman he has carried himself impeccably. As a coach he has been arguably the best of any at this tournament thus far. England are genuinely lucky to have him.
3) Bukayo Saka was not mentioned on purpose there: he deserves a separate mention in terms of standing up to be counted instead of doubted. Both of England’s goals came after he was replaced but the winger helped his teammates find a foothold in the game when it had slipped out of their control.
Germany had a fine start. Timo Werner’s runs in behind were an obvious threat, Declan Rice was booked for fouling Leon Goretzka when a simple ball pierced England’s centre and they used the deafening Wembley atmosphere against the hosts. England seemed to struggle completing more than two consecutive passes and no-one took on the responsibility of getting their foot on the ball and calming the collective nerves.
It took until a quarter of an hour had passed for that initiative to be grasped by the youngest player on the pitch, the third teenage starter of a major tournament knockout tie in England’s history. Saka is not as prodigiously exceptional as Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney were at that age but his is a quiet confidence and assured aura. He did brilliantly to win a free-kick from Antonio Rudiger in one corner of Germany’s half; the centre-back was sufficiently spooked by the Arsenal player for the rest of the game. A minute later he turned a slightly short pass into a brilliant one by suddenly spinning to face the opposition goal and leaving a pressing defender sprawled on the ground.
The impact of those two moments should not go overlooked. England seemed overawed by either the occasion, the opponent or both. A 19-year-old on his fourth competitive international start and in the biggest game of his career hauled them out of that funk.
4) England had their first attempt shortly afterwards as Sterling collected a ball from Rice in the inside left channel and immediately sought to run into space. He danced past Kai Havertz and curled an effort that did not particularly trouble Manuel Neuer but did still require his attention. Maguire directed a header into the Germany goalkeeper’s arms from the subsequent corner and from the ashes of a panicked start England suddenly had as many shots on target in 17 minutes as they managed over 90 against Croatia and Scotland.
Hindsight shows how important that action from Sterling was. There were times in the second half when that was all England had: using Sterling as an outlet to release pressure and hoping he could take on the three or so defenders that immediately swarmed him. That tactic has a naturally low success-rate but it only had to strike gold once and needed the utmost patience. The Manchester City winger completed more than one-third of the entire game’s dribbles and they were all similar in style and conception. That opening goal was no instinctive coincidence considering he had already tried that movement a couple of times before.
5) The momentum seemed to suddenly shift after those two England shots as the roles were reversed. Germany looked anxious. Toni Kroos misplaced passes. The hosts assumed control and key to that was Maguire, who led by example with some positive, proactive defending. In one moment he pushed up to dispossess Thomas Muller with a perfectly-timed tackle before the Germany forward even started contemplating interpreting the space around him. A few minutes later Maguire absolutely dominated Muller on the halfway line again, sending a long Neuer kick straight back from whence it came with a crashing header. Then came one of his trademark incisive runs from deep as England started to truly express themselves.
Maguire was an absolute mountain throughout. It has often felt like Manchester United wanted or needed him to be Captain Material before he was ready, but those last remaining doubts as to whether he can properly marshal a defence were thoroughly dispelled.
6) The set-piece delivery was much better than against Czech Republic. Trippier might be seen as an uninspiring choice by many in a position England are so blessed in, but his free-kicks and corners were very good. Mats Hummels did wonderfully to recover from one quick free-kick that was destined for Kane’s head in particular. It is also nice to know England have set-pieces in their pocket as a constant attacking alternative rather something to rely on. Their open-play patterns have improved considerably since the World Cup.
7) On the subject of Trippier, he and Shaw did a phenomenal job in thwarting Germany’s wing-backs. Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens had created 11 chances and managed six shots between them in three group-stage games but their only threat here was an early Kimmich cross that Walker headed behind and another delivery from the Bayern Munich player that evaded everyone after about half an hour. Shaw could perhaps have been tighter there – although Kimmich using his left foot for such a great ball was almost cheating. Even then, Trippier filled in the gaps by distracting Gosens enough and using his body to ensure the chance could not be taken.
Southgate was vindicated in switching formations to match up with Germany. Some saw it as an admission of weakness but it was pure common sense and needed ludicrous levels of concentration and focus from Trippier and Shaw to pull off while still providing an attacking impetus.
8) Trippier’s best ball might have been the one that found Maguire’s head in the 27th minute, but he could not control his effort and the slight chance was soon forgotten. The Atletico Madrid right-back had time and space to pick his spot after a quite brilliant Phillips ball caught Germany off guard after they had cleared a corner.
Phillips was close to those Croatia levels while playing a completely different role. His forward runs were limited to pressing high off the ball in defence rather than exploiting space in attack on it. The Leeds midfielder was instead relied upon to make the more progressive passes while maintaining the energy to interrupt the rhythm of Kroos and Goretzka when they were in possession. Even after picking up a deserved booking on the stroke of half-time Phillips kept his composure and Southgate continued to trust him when the accepted wisdom might have been to replace either him or Rice – both on a booking – at half-time.
The England manager described Eric Dier as his “sounding board” in late 2017 because the Tottenham player had “good tactical understanding on the field” and “ideas of how we might solve problems”. With all due respect, Phillips feels like an upgrade in that regard. It is no mystery as to why he has played every minute of this tournament so far. He switched between midfield roles seamlessly and that pass for Trippier was a typifying thing of beauty.
9) Germany still posed a latent threat through Werner. The Chelsea forward had checked his runs a couple of times and was frustrated when the ball was not released early enough to find him in space as England started to play higher up the pitch. But instead of a counter-attack, his eventual opportunity actually arose through a patient period of passing from the back. Goretzka strolled forward and played the ball into the feet of Havertz, who turned to find no-one within ten yards of him. Rice, tracking Muller, was too slow to close and Walker too wide to react, meaning the through ball could be played into his Chelsea teammate’s stride.
Stones provided the visage of cover but he was not quite tight enough to block the shot; indeed, the only England player who seemed aware of the situation as it unfolded was Pickford, who waited until the last second to come off his line, close the angle and make a fine save with his legs.
The eye-catching save was made later on from Havertz himself when a loose ball found its way to the edge of the England area. On both occasions the score was still level and the tie balanced finely enough that the concession of a goal might have felt overwhelmingly crushing. Pickford earned his fourth clean sheet of the competition and Dean Henderson and Nick Pope feel further from challenging him for the spot than ever. Say what you will about his Everton form, but he has never let England down.
10) Werner had absolutely no impact after that. He would have been slipped in behind by Kimmich in the 39th minute but Walker was alert to the danger and his speed, combined with great positioning and reading of the situation as the ball had been loose, meant it was quickly diverted to safety. Then Stones found himself isolated in the penalty area against the striker in the 56th minute but his tackle was inch-perfect.
Joachim Low sensed the need for something new and brought Werner off for Serge Gnabry soon after, which was testament to how England eventually identified and rectified the flaws in their system that the forward had been primed to exploit. Whether it was thanks to the goalkeeper, the defence or a combination, they deserve credit for reacting before the horse had bolted and not after.
11) England reacted differently to that chance in comparison to the pressure they faced earlier on. It was notable how they purposefully kept passing the ball around in defence to prevent Germany building up a head of steam, while simultaneously settling their own frayed nerves once more. The ten-minute period immediately after the Werner chance was by far their longest sustained period in possession (66.9% from the 33rd to the 43rd minute) and every player, even the isolated Kane, had at least three touches of the ball. It was a moment in which they showed their collective maturity: so often this team would let itself be dragged into a chaotic end-to-end match after allowing a chance like that, but instead they sought control and swam away from a potential tide.
12) Kane, as aforementioned, was anonymous for so long. He had two touches in the first 36 minutes but suddenly sparked to life before half-time, dropping to the halfway line and dragging Hummels with him before turning and almost finding Phillips, then getting a free-kick from Goretzka after a rare burst of pace. Those steps forward were followed with a massive stride backwards when he simply could not control a loose ball in the Germany area and was tackled before he could even shoot.
He faded again in the second half, and rather badly. An apparent knee injury rendered Kane even closer to immobile and it was a wonder why Southgate a) kept him on, and b) did not pick Dominic Calvert-Lewin in his squad.
Then came the reminder. Kane played a similar part in the opener as he did for Sterling’s decisive strike against Czech Republic last week, providing the central fulcrum around which a move could be constructed with his back to goal. His late header sealed both victory and his place in this team for the rest of the tournament, were that ever under serious consideration from management.
It certainly should have been for most of this match and the unwashed masses would have substituted Kane long before the goals. That was yet another Southgate decision – or non-decision – that paid off. Legitimate questions can still be asked of his contribution in general play but his influence in the match-clinching moments are quite the answer. You consider dropping him for a while – and then he does that.
13) When a Germany attack broke down just after the hour mark and the ball found its way to Sterling, Wembley erupted with expectation. The forward was 40 yards from his own goal, five Germany defenders were either around him or in their own half and for support he had a knackered Kane and a tired Saka, all the way over on the other wing. That pretty much summed up the role Sterling was being asked to play: the man who had to make something out of nothing.
He almost managed it at the end of the first half when he wriggled towards the area and was eventually thwarted as four Germany players surrounded for the chance that fell to Kane. Even then it felt as though – as it often does with Sterling – he could have released the ball earlier. The moment he did, he played it to Kane and had scored himself a matter of seconds later.
Sterling was the only player on either team who engaged in bright, positive dribbling all game; Saka indulged in a little during the first half before fading. Germany never really knew how to handle it. But Sterling was brilliant yet again even aside from the goal, covering his flank impeccably and forcing Germany back with his pressing after a dangerous free-kick hit the wall. The Manchester City forward has had a sensational tournament already and there are genuinely still some people out there who would prefer he didn’t start.
14) The match shifted upon the introduction of Jack Grealish for Saka. It was ironically humorous to see the Aston Villa captain foul Havertz as his first action before playing a part in both goals. A less composed player might have made that pass to Shaw too soon or too wide but it was ideal in that it invited the driven cross. The touch out of his feet and cross for Kane’s header was every bit as good as it needed to be.
He and Shaw unlocked the game. In addition to stifling Kimmich, Shaw chose his moments to attack excellently and laid on Sterling’s goal before stepping up to tackle Gnabry on the halfway line and create the second goal. Ben Chilwell might feel a little hard done by after starting half of the country’s qualifiers for this tournament, but England’s best left-back is in his rightful place and better than ever.
15) It would not be England without a self-inflicted scare. Sterling lost the ball in the Germany half and suddenly the pitch opened. Stones stepped up a little too far before realising his error and Havertz played Muller in one-on-one with 40 yards to pick his spot. He put it wide of Pickford’s far post and the stadium erupted once more.
The conclusion? Kyle Walker is fucking rapid. From a standing position when Sterling was dispossessed, he made up about 20 yards on Muller and might genuinely have done enough to put him off. This was after 80 minutes. Pretty sure I pulled a hamstring watching it.
16) Southgate has absolutely mastered this tournament so far. It is incredibly rare for a manager to make so many decisive calls with none of them backfiring, from Trippier at left-back against Croatia to the gradual clamour-defying introduction of Grealish. England have made five defensive personnel changes and one entire system switch in four games and are yet to concede. They are creating few chances overall but those they do carve out are of incredibly high quality. Winning this game without Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham, with Grealish coming on as a substitute, is a remarkable statement.
France tried to adapt from four to three at the back mid-tournament and they are no longer participating. They could not do what England did. Italy navigated the group stage without conceding but were breached by Austria after being forced into extra-time. They could not do what England did. Belgium relied on a moment of individual brilliance separate from the context of their game. They could not do what England did. Spain embraced the chaos, flirted with disaster and edged through. They could not do what England did. Netherlands cruised into the knockouts and promptly lost to the Czech Republic. They tangibly and measurably could not do what England did.
The world footballing elite need no longer sneer and scoff at this team. That is an achievement in itself. Southgate has turned ‘We’re not creative enough, we’re not positive enough,’ from a lyrical lament into a challenge. Many will continue to snipe in the belief they could do better; he has earned the right to continue on a sensible pursuit of glory in the name of a nation that only grows prouder.