LONDON — Gareth Southgate’s biggest test as England manager ended with a result that can redefine how the nation views itself at major tournaments, beating Germany 2-0 on Tuesday in the round of 16 at Euro 2020 and ending Joachim Low’s time in charge of Die Nationalmannschaft.
The Three Lions may have reached a World Cup semifinal under Southgate in 2018, but they did so without beating any of the elite nations and arguably succumbed to the first proper test they faced in an extra-time defeat to Croatia. Biennial disappointment is woven into the fabric of England’s sporting consciousness, an inferiority complex built over decades that has previously manifested in a fear of failure, fatigue and frustration.
England had never won a European Championship knockout game in 90 minutes before Tuesday. Southgate was determined that this young squad would not be burdened by history, rather inspired to make their own. And he was right.
This is a Germany side palpably short of a typical vintage, but they are a four-time World Cup-winning nation. No country has won more than the three European Championships they took home in 1972, 1980 and 1996.
They possess a tournament pedigree England have never been able to replicate, often falling short directly at the hands of Tuesday’s opponents. Beaten by Germany in 1970, 1990, 1996 and 2010, they are responsible for more psychological football trauma in England than any other nation.
Not anymore. In this adversarial fixture, Germany go from Moller to Muller: Andreas Moller broke English hearts with his winning penalty when these teams were separated by a shootout in the semifinals of Euro 96, but here, Thomas Muller sank to his knees after firing wide when clean through with the goal at his mercy and Joachim Low’s side only trailing 1-0.
England have beaten their fiercest rivals in a knockout match for the first time since winning the 1966 World Cup final. This, incidentally, is the also the first time since that triumph that England have kept four clean sheets in their first four matches at a finals.
But this is also a huge win for Southgate. Twenty-five years on from missing the decisive penalty in that Euro 96 shootout, he masterminded a success that represents a huge step forward in his task of ending a 55-year wait for tournament glory. As much as he passed the plaudits onto his players, this must have felt cathartic to some extent, both in the context of his personal history but also the desire to feel “external support” — as he put it — if he is to accept an imminent contract extension offer from the Football Association to stay on beyond the 2022 World Cup.
“We’re playing a team with four World Cup winners, a manager whose had an incredible career — I didn’t have the chance to congratulate him earlier because I know tonight will be a difficult night — but he’s had an incredible career with Germany and I have huge respect for what’s he’s done,” Southgate said of Germany and Low. “So, we know that there’s always been questions following the World Cup about us against a big team, a big nation and Germany are, with their experience today, we knew they would dictate the speed of certain passages of the game.
“We know that [Toni] Kroos would organise the game and [Mats] Hummels, we would have to be patient. So what pleased me the most was that we’ll always have passion and heart, but we played with brains today as well and we pressed at the right moments. We wanted to be man-for-man aggressive in our pressure, the wing-backs did that well and set the tone. The forward picked the right moments to go and stay and then we’ve found a nice balance of being brave with the ball to keep possession in our own half at times and also go quickly and counter. That was a real step forward for us.”
In orchestrating this victory, Southgate got that support his way. Such is the juxtaposition of the caution that imbues each team selection at these finals and the plethora of attacking talent at his disposal, every team he picks is greeted with consternation in the darker corners of social media.
Matching up Germany’s 3-4-3 shape was always likely to create a cagier affair than we have seen elsewhere at the last-16 stage, but it helped give England safety in numbers in central areas. Not that it appeared so early on. Declan Rice was booked with eight minutes gone for hauling down Leon Goretska as he threatened to burst through England’s back line.
Germany dictated the early tempo as England chased shadows, but Southgate is acutely aware of how individual errors have undermined their chances at past tournaments. By minimising risk, the 50-year-old is seeking to reduce those moments of misfortune.
It isn’t always pretty. Raheem Sterling stung Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer‘s fingertips with a curling shot from the edge of the box and Harry Maguire headed a Kieran Trippier cross over the crossbar, but despite Bukayo Saka defying his age and inexperience by injecting fresh impetus, England created precious little until the stroke of half-time.
Sterling intercepted a poor pass from Muller and drove forward. The ball ricocheted into Harry Kane‘s path and rather than shoot first time left footed, as the situation clearly dictated, he tried to work the ball onto his right foot with a heavy touch and the chance was gone.
As Saka faded in the second half, England were increasingly reliant on Sterling to link up play by driving the team forward. Jack Grealish replaced Saka to help him, and England finally moved the ball with sufficient speed to create a problem for Germany.
Sterling burst infield from the right and found Kane, who worked the ball left to Grealish. He helped it on to Luke Shaw out on the left wing. Shaw crossed low and Sterling continued his run to meet the delivery, side-footing in for his third goal in four games. He is absolutely essential to this team.
England finished the game off with four minutes left as Grealish crossed for Kane to head home and break his duck, but not before riding their luck in remarkable fashion. Sterling gave the ball to Kai Havertz, who released Muller to run through on goal, yet the seemingly inevitable didn’t happen: Muller shot wide, England held onto their slender lead and ultimately extended it.
Germany have so often been hailed as a team with structure, greater than the sum of their parts while England — exemplified by the so-called “Golden Generation” of much-celebrated Premier League stars from 15 years ago — have failed as individuals never moulded into a team. Southgate is changing that.
It should be noted that England had advantages, not least a fiercely partisan 45,000-strong crowd but also a full week to prepare their change of system — a day longer than their opponents. Saturday’s quarterfinal in Rome will rob them of both home support and elongated recovery time.
Yet they are more pragmatic and organised than anyone anticipated, exemplified by the Rice-Kalvin Phillips axis in midfield, a conservative central pairing but one that exemplifies Southgate’s desire for control over undue risk. Both walked the tightrope of carrying a yellow card for the entire second half; in fact, Phillips regained possession 11 times, the most by an England player at the Euros since Tony Adams (13) in 1996, also against Germany.
Southgate was, of course, the unfortunate villain of that fateful night, seemingly forever defined by his place in the England team’s catalogue of disappointment. Perhaps that is changing, too.