Anyone but Germany. That was the feeling from a large portion of England fans on Wednesday night as the Euro 2020 ‘group of death’ carousel span at a dizzying pace, with each of its four teams ready to jump off and land at England’s feet at one point or another.
By the time the enthralling ride came to an end, France stepped off first, breathing a sigh of relief but generally composed. It was an out-of-sorts Germany who stumbled off second, arriving in front of England to set up a seismic clash, the familiarity of which brings no comfort to those supporters singing of Three Lions, a gleaming Jules Rimet trophy and 30 years of hurt – which have turned into 55, thanks in no small part to die Mannschaft.
That’s the thing. Defeats by Germany turn into hauntings for the English. There are different spectres for different generations. For one, it will be the World Cup quarter-final defeat in Mexico in 1970, when England blew a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 in extra time, and the last-eight loss two years later at the Euros. For another, it will be the penalty shootout heartache of semi-final ties in Italy – one at the 1990 World Cup and one at Euro 96. For the next, it will be the evisceration in South Africa in 2010, a World Cup defeat that even threw up a ghost goal as Fabio Capello’s side were ripped to shreds by a youthful German outfit in the last 16.
England’s chances were talked up ahead of that Bloemfontein encounter, the most recent between the old rivals at a major tournament. Those shreds of hope were not entirely naive, as they were founded on the notion that a mediocre English team might at least have the experience to find a way past a Germany that at times played like an exuberant child on a steady diet of purified sugar and Skittles.
The likelier outcome was realised, however, as Joachim Löw’s players repeatedly tore through Capello’s for a 4-1 victory. The inexperience of that version of Germany was always likely to catch up with them at some point (and did in the semi-finals), but not against England.
As the most recent clash between England and Germany at the highest level, that meeting is of course the freshest in the memory. The slightest allowance of the most measured expectations is still rued. Yet, England should beat Germany next week.
It is not a statement meant to cruelly tempt the fate of a desperate nation – not least because, right now, Germany are in their own unique state of desperation. It is not a hypocritical statement typed in disregard of the false hope that broke English hearts 11 summers ago. It is, however, a statement disregarding another emotion: the one that led some fans to think ‘anyone but Germany’, as though a more thorough beating by world champions France or another knockout loss to Portugal might be easier to stomach.
There is an inherent difficulty in casting aside the emotional element of an England-Germany tie – a classic fixture worthy of Wembley – but if one does so, the reality reveals that England should beat Germany.
For all the hysteria around ‘poor’ England performances so far at Euro 2020, Gareth Southgate’s side topped a tricky group with seven points and without conceding a goal. Italy were the only other team to navigate the first round with three clean sheets.
England’s weakest area became their most effective, and while it is easy to understand frustrations over their strongest asset – the attack – not clicking, it is no doubt more difficult to do what Southgate and his staff have done with the defence than to kickstart the offensive contingent.
Gareth Southgate may have the right approach to stunt the Germans
The England coach must take some responsibility for the delay in achieving the latter outcome, with a sensible Southgate hesitant to take off the handbrake, but it is also true that his forwards were always more likely to thrive in more open contests – the kind that Germany will look to engender at Wembley.
As Löw barrels towards the end of his tenure as head coach, Germany have been craving chaos in lieu of a consistent gameplan.
The Joshua Kimmich-Robin Gosens wing-back experiment has provided patchy results, but Germany thrived in the bedlam of their 4-2 win over Portugal, survived in it as they drew 2-2 with Hungary, and sorely missed it in their 1-0 opening defeat by France.
Criticism of the starkly contrasting ‘professional’ performances of Southgate’s England are not wholly misguided, but the coach’s ability to manage games so far at Euro 2020 could prove crucial against the Germans, who will be looking forward to this meeting with miserly opposition much less than even the most pessimistic England fan will be looking forward to a game against these familiar foes.
Goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer warned after his side’s dramatic and vital draw with Hungary that England are on another level to Marco Rossi’s players, while Löw promised a better performance – one that his squad will need – and Kimmich acknowledged that the Three Lions are not exactly welcome opponents at this stage. German publication Bild asked how on earth their national team had even made it through to a tie against England, which Kicker declared a 50/50.
Joshua Kimmich celebrates after Leon Goretzka scores against Hungary
With the way England set up and the way Germany have, in some senses, failed to at this tournament so far, those odds should tilt towards Southgate’s players.
That is without even factoring in the possibility that England finally find their attacking edge in this tie, but balancing that with a respectful regard for defensive diligence will be key.
In Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gundogan, Germany have the kind of world-class midfielders that have hurt England in the past. One needn’t look further back than the 2018 World Cup semi-final in which Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic undid the Three Lions. But the English midfield is the strongest it has been in some time, with a healthy blend of physicality, exertion and creativity.
So, England should beat Germany. Will they? That’s not what this piece is really about.
The fear from many English fans is understandable, but it shouldn’t strip them bare of positive expectations – the kind that English players will sport well at Wembley.
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