LONDON — Gareth Southgate may be mindful of growing dissent within the England fanbase and wary of what he describes as an impending “war” with sections of the media, but on Monday his players made the most important judgement of all.
There was never a chance of the Football Association removing Southgate before the World Cup begins in Qatar, but he was on the brink of a new low in his six-year tenure at 2-0 down against Germany in Monday’s UEFA Nations League clash at Wembley.
Questions have grown ever louder over the direction of his team since reaching last year’s Euro 2020 final — specifically whether the 52-year-old is too conservative to maximise the attacking potential of an exciting group of individuals.
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Southgate had spoken about sticking to what he believes in after Friday’s insipid 1-0 defeat in Italy and at Wembley he did just that, deploying his now favoured 3-4-3 formation and continuing with a series of selection calls that feel increasingly idiosyncratic. Southgate persisted in his enduring loyalty to Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw despite the stock of both players falling faster than the British pound at Manchester United, he put Nick Pope in goal instead of Aaron Ramsdale with Jordan Pickford injured, and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Fikayo Tomori were not even in the matchday squad.
By the time the game entered the final 20 minutes, Wembley was quiet, the Germans had been taunting the locals by singing “football’s coming home” in flawless English and Southgate was presiding over 565 minutes without a goal from open play. And then England sparked into life, roaring back for an eventual 3-3 finish.
Reece James, selected ahead of Alexander-Arnold, swung a cross to the far post where Shaw controlled the ball and squeezed a shot under Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The sight of one wing-back assisting the other evoked memories of England’s fast start to the Euro 2020 final against Italy when Shaw scored after just two minutes, the apotheosis of Southgate’s tenure.
It will have felt like vindication, given the sustained search for the most effective formation with this current group, alternating between 3-4-3 and something approximating 4-2-3-1 — a shape Southgate used in the reverse fixture in Munich. And it triggered a rousing comeback.
Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount, on for Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden five minutes before Shaw’s goal, got up to speed quickly and combined well for Mount to sweep home an equaliser. Then Nico Schlotterbeck produced an ugly tackle on Jude Bellingham in the box and Harry Kane stepped up to fire England in front.
It is Southgate’s lot at the moment that a win was snatched from his grasp — or, more accurately, fumbled from Pope’s grasp as the Newcastle United goalkeeper spilt Serge Gnabry’s tame shot, allowing Kai Havertz to equalise. But this was a night when individual errors undermined England rather than a collective, systemic failure, which Southgate’s detractors claim has set in.
In a goalless first half, England created the better chances but Sterling, Phil Foden and Kane were unable to make those moments count, and they fell behind due to more isolated errors. Maguire looked cumbersome in the extreme as he felled Jamal Musiala in the box. Havertz’s second came from a brilliant finish but, first, another cheap concession of possession from Maguire.
Southgate’s loyalty to Maguire is admirable on a personal level but looks misplaced given the mistakes that have permeated his game for more than a year now. Yet it is that same trusting trait which enabled the England’s squad leadership group, comprising among others Kane, Sterling and Jordan Henderson, to feel comfortable enough to approach Southgate and request a private meeting without staff to address the team’s slump in form.
“They asked could they have a meeting on their own [without the coaching staff] to talk things through,” said Southgate on Monday. “[It wasn’t about] tactical messages, just keeping people on track: ‘We’re on board with what we’re being asked to do, we need to stay calm, we’ve been through moments like this before.’
“We’ve got players who have experienced moments like this with England but not so many now, which is why I think they are all learning together. In those moments, its we’ve got to stick to what we are doing.”
Something stirred here. For a brief 11-minute period, England reminded themselves of the best they have been under Southgate: dynamic, purposeful and resilient. It has been absent for far too long, in sterile displays twice against Hungary, twice against Italy and for large parts of the game in Munich.
Southgate needs to somehow harness that period and recreate it across five weeks in Qatar — without seeing the players until eight days before the tournament. And no warm-up matches either.
The frankly absurd domestic schedule will ask a lot of these players in the coming weeks. They could, in all honesty, have been forgiven for turning their thoughts towards this weekend and beyond — the Premier League resumes with two major derbies, in north London and Manchester — when falling 2-0 down here.
But they chose to rally themselves. Declan Rice and Bellingham kept at it in central midfield. Bellingham is a major positive from this international break. He will surely start in Qatar.
Saka and Mount provided real impetus off the bench. The defence continues to be a major concern — it is the primary reason for Southgate’s caution, trying to provide greater protection for a porous backline by bolstering a midfield that has habitually struggled to retain possession.
These are longstanding issues. But Monday’s display showed Southgate and his players are still united in trying to resolve them.