Even when everything else was going well for Gareth Southgate, there was a criticism that could be levelled at him. A meticulous planner could set up a side to start well, but they lost their way. Southgate could not make game-changing substitutions. Croatia and Italy could concede first to England but come back and win. Southgate lacked the instinctive brilliance to alter a match that was getting away from him.
As a reign seemed to be losing its way, as six years of progress seemed to bring drift, dullness and disappointment, Southgate did something new. Not pick Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has cemented the prized role of England’s fourth-choice right-back. But still something very different. He conjured a comeback.
It was Mason Mount, a substitute, who swept in an equaliser from 20 yards. Bukayo Saka, another replacement, had picked him out, just as he had been involved in the build-up to Luke Shaw’s goal. After failing to find the net in open play in 520 minutes in the Nations League, England had two goals in four minutes.
When Harry Kane doubled his tally of penalties in the tournament, England had three goals in 12 minutes. An insipid defeat had been transformed into a fabulous fightback. A poor piece of handling from Nick Pope and a second goal of the night for Kai Havertz later and a cathartic win disappeared, replaced by a draw, just as a dreadful first half was succeeded by an action-packed second.
But for England, a 3-3 scoreline at least offered the succour a stalemate would not have done. The sense was growing that Southgate’s side had run out of goals as well as ideas, that talent was producing tediousness. And, suddenly, they regained a sense of excitement, the prospect that potential can be unleashed, albeit in a very Gareth-esque way.
Perhaps it could be traced to a double change, to the moment when Saka and Mount replaced Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling. And if Sterling, one of the great success stories of Southgate’s management, had brought verve without the finish, if Foden had shown glimpses of his class, it was notable that when each went off, Southgate stuck with his 3-4-3 formation.
In terms of personnel, he did not go for all-out attack: not when he made the substitution at 1-0 or even when Havertz put Germany two ahead in quite delightful fashion. But his back three afforded Shaw the platform to get forward. The Euro 2020 final scorer, the man who put Southgate’s England within touching distance of silverware, offered a reminder of the heights they touched under a now beleaguered manager.
Certainly Shaw’s recall showed that Southgate was plotting an idiosyncratic path. Implausible as it can sometimes sound when watching him, the left-back ranked as one of Euro 2020’s more potent attacking forces, adding a goal to his three assists. At a time when scrutiny on his choices was increasing, Southgate doubled down on his beliefs; with admittedly mixed returns.
Shaw started the fightback but, in good times and bad, Harry Maguire can be a symbolic figure for this England. He conceded possession, kicked Jamal Musiala when he aimed for the ball and gifted Ilkay Gundogan his penalty to open the scoring. Southgate’s beloved back three was breached three times, though a glorious goal from Havertz and individual errors from Maguire and Pope suggested the problem was not systemic.
But despite the goalkeeper’s late mistake, Southgate ended with a smile. Like Germany, England go to Qatar in the World Cup but they could be buoyed by the last 20 minutes. There had been passages of drift and spells of nothingness as the crowd neither jeered nor cheered but sat in subdued silence. Some had left before the players left the turf, but there were no boos. Southgate was not told that he does not know what he is doing. If this is a farewell on home soil, it came with unexpected encouragement.
A few months ago, it would have felt ludicrous to suggest this might be his last match at Wembley. Now, half a lifetime on from his missed penalty, Gundogan’s calm finish brought an unwanted reminder the Germans rarely miss from 12 yards. But Southgate is the only England manager to win a knockout game against Germany since 1966. His managerial career has added an epic element to his England career.
Their last semi-final without Southgate was in 1990 but when this September looked a continuation of the summer for England, a time of ennui and exhaustion, it seemed as though the best tenure since Sir Alf Ramsey’s would headed for unhappy anti-climax. And then, out of nothing, came a hint of optimism. Southgate learned a new trick, effected an inspired change and England had three goals and just a third point of an otherwise dismal Nations League campaign.