Euro 2020: Southgate’s shrewd tactical switch snuffs out Germany threat

Despite pre-match criticism and a nervous start, Southgate’s solid formation – along with some timely German mistakes – saw England progress to the quarter-finals, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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England progressed to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 thanks to two well-worked goals from Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane, as Gareth Southgate nullified Germany by matching their 3-4-3 formation. Southgate’s decision to play a back three initially drew criticism with some worried that it would prompt even more negative football from an England side that had scored fewer goals in the group stages than any other team in the last 16.

Yet aside from a nervous opening ten minutes, England were able to suffocate Germany of opportunities in much the same way they have limited the three other teams they have played so far in this competition. Germany’s best performance in the group stages had come against Portugal, where they used quick switches of play from right to left to get left wing-back Robin Gosens into dangerous positions. Here, though, with Kieran Trippier matched up against him, Germany were unable to get him the ball.

Instead, they tried to play centrally through the lines with England more or less comfortable to contain them in that way. The only real breakthrough was when Kai Havertz was able to slip Timo Werner in, but Jordan Pickford saved well.

Despite England’s resolute shape, this was still a match that turned on mistakes. We prefer to think of football as being defined by moments of skill. There were elements of that – Sterling’s runs into the heart of the German defence, Bukayo Saka holding off Toni Rudiger – but ultimately, the game was decided by Muller’s miss and Kane’s goal, both chances created from mistakes.

Six minutes after creating and finishing England’s opener, Raheem Sterling’s wayward pass allowed Germany to counter-attack. Kai Havertz played Thomas Muller into acres of space with only Jordan Pickford ahead of him. Muller, who has never scored at the Euros, rolled the ball wide of the post as Sterling held his head in his hands.

Three minutes later, it was Germany who gave the ball away, allowing Luke Shaw to run at the German defence and start a move that was almost identical to the opening goal. Harry Kane threw himself at the ball like a man who knew he could not fluff his lines for a second time.

Football is filled with counterfactuals. There is no guarantee that if Muller had scored, Germany would have gone on to win from that position. But it was fitting that, 11 years on from Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost’ goal at the 2010 World Cup, England were able to cash in some of their own lucky chips.

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England now have to face Ukraine in the quarter-final, and Southgate, having shown his tactical flexibility, will presumably revert to the 4-2-3-1 which he has favoured for most of the tournament. His problems will shift once again, back to questions of how he can break down a team like Ukraine as opposed to containing and exploiting a team like Germany who will come onto you. Of course, once you reach the knock-out stages, the demand to play exciting football is superseded by the desire to progress. After all, the Netherlands scored more goals than any other country in the group stages, but it did not stop them from being eliminated by the Czech Republic.

Bukayo Saka was quieter against Germany than he was against the Czech Republic, but Southgate will have to decide whether he sticks with him or reverts to Phil Foden come the quarter-finals. Mason Mount is now out of self-isolation and available to return to the side, but Jack Grealish was instrumental in both of England’s goals in the Round of 16. England might have progressed one round further in this competition, but the familiar headaches remain. It is just now each decision has more weighing on it than ever before.

Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph

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