Never before in the history of football has a ‘dead rubber’ for England had so much riding on it. They will run out at Wembley Stadium, in front of a sell-out 90,000 crowd, to face Germany fearful of another unconvincing performance and – damagingly – being booed by their own fans for a third game in a row. What a send-off that would be for the World Cup.
There is nothing else on this Nations League tie – with England already suffering the embarrassment of being relegated from the top tier of countries – than changing the mood and alleviating the pressure in the final game before heading to Qatar just 55 days’ later. But that is crucial enough.
Morale must be restored following a frankly appalling Nations League campaign – three defeats, two draws and just one goal (and that from the penalty spot) – which has led to a violent swing away from manager Gareth Southgate who only last year signed a contract until the end of the next Euros in 2024 but knows that means little should it be an underwhelming tournament. Southgate’s antennae are always acute.
“I have in one guise or other been to 12 tournaments…I have seen pretty much everything,” he reasoned ahead of facing Germany, having played in or managed at seven of those competitions. “I have seen the cycle of war with the media. I have seen the absolute love-in and we are somewhere in the middle of that or maybe not quite in the middle.”
Southgate has, indeed, seen it all. He played in Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle’s last games in charge and he was also on the pitch – against Germany - in the final, sodden match at the old Wembley in Oct 2000 and witnessed the abuse that rained down on Kevin Keegan that night and led to his resignation.
Southgate has worked as a television pundit, and within the Football Association, and is aware that failure to beat Germany would leave England with their longest winless run in competitive matches since 1958. What a contrast it already feels from the last time the two nations met, in the last-16 of Euro 2020, when Wembley was rocking and “Sweet Caroline” was belted out after a vibrant 2-0 win.
That was less than 15 months ago and it is remarkable to think, given some of the attacks on him, that this is the manager who was only a couple of penalty kicks from delivering England’s first major trophy in 55 years.
Some of the baiting of Southgate is disgraceful given what he has achieved – and memories are crazily short – but he knows what must be done and it is no surprise that he has tried to make sure the criticism has focused on him having worked so hard to deal with the mental fragility that has afflicted England players in the past. It is a long time since we have heard the phrase that “the shirt weighs heavily on them” but it looks like a looming problem once more.
“It’s not healthy for the team to be having this noise around them, I fully understand that. But it’s for me to take responsibility, it’s for me to allow them to go and play. I want them to feel the freedom,” Southgate said before revealing that he had held a critical team meeting after the disappointing loss away to Italy on Friday.
“We’ve talked to them about the highs and lows of football and how the last couple of years have been incredible highs and everything on the roll and a lot of love and togetherness and now a different sort of test,” Southgate continued.
But here is the problem: is Southgate setting England up in a way that they can play with the “freedom” he talks about or is he drawing in their horns? The over-dependence on Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling for goals has unfortunately been exposed; the lack of a midfield controller, that perennial problem – felt more acutely because Germany have Joshua Kimmich – has also been highlighted and Southgate’s default reliance on playing a five-man defence has become a matter of fierce debate…as has his overall tactics.
Do not expect a shift in approach now, even if a 4-3-3, with a more front-foot dynamic instinctively feels like the way England should have already gone. After all, despite the talk of playing a back-three in big games England’s best results – apart from beating Germany at the Euros - since the last World Cup (against Croatia and Spain in the autumn of 2018; against Denmark, Ukraine and Croatia at the Euros and Poland in World Cup 2022 qualification) involved a back four.
But what certainly needs to change is mentality because England have found themselves in a rut, almost a self-fulfilling prophecy after a dismal summer, which feels like it has a momentum against the manager which makes his final plea even more important.
“We can't succeed with fans against us, or you guys [the media] not feeling warm towards us,” Southgate said, as he stressed the message of “togetherness”. “I think that's been a huge strength of what's happened over the last four or five years and it's harder if we're having to battle with the opposition and then battle with things on our own island. Only we can rectify that by performances and results, but that's the desire,” he added.
Victory over Germany would alter the mood even if some of Southgate’s critics appear to have made their minds up. The fact is that he can turn this around and has earned the right to do so. Clearly that argument would be bolstered by a performance.
“I would urge the supporters to get behind the team,” Southgate said. “How they deal with me at the end or whenever, on the phone-ins or wherever else, is completely different. But this is their last chance to see the boys before they go to the World Cup. And we’re all in it together.”
It may help that it is Germany – who have their own problems – given the rivalry and the resonance and a win and a good performance would certainly go some way to settling things down before Qatar.