The first half of Monday evening’s meeting between England and Germany was alright. Gareth Southgate’s men were nothing special, but there was at least a much-needed sight of some creative desire.
The problem was, however, that there was still the obvious fear of conceding goals and losing games which held them back.
Southgate’s side has built itself around being tough to beat. Their recent success revolved around their defence, but that mystique has crumbled this summer. England failed to win any of their six Nations League games and were deservedly relegated from the competition’s top tier.
And yet, the final feeling stemming from the nightmarish summer is one of optimism.
After Kai Havertz curled home a gorgeous strike to put Germany 2-0 up at Wembley, a switch seemed to flick in England. Their fear of losing had done nothing to help, and now, the best form of defence would have to be attack.
Inspired by the introductions of Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount, who joined the fun moments before Havertz’s strike, England went for the game. They needed two goals at least to take something from the occasion, and their previously cautious approach was not going to get the job done.
Saka and Mount pressed high and took the game to Germany, but it was the sensational Jude Bellingham who benefitted most from this freedom from fear. Encouraged to be the box-to-box machine that fans have long known he is, the teenager went on a tear at both ends of the field to help turn the tide of the game.
Luke Shaw netted almost immediately and fans hadn’t even sat down by the time Mount bagged an equaliser, but England kept pushing and deservedly took the lead with a late Harry Kane penalty – predictably won by Bellingham. Three points would have been theirs had it not been for an unfortunate mistake from goalkeeper Nick Pope in the dying embers.
On paper, it’s another draw in a winless summer, but what this performance actually showed was that England are actually a good team when they choose to play like one.
Granted, Germany aren’t exactly at the peak of their powers themselves, but they were still good enough to go two-up against England. Hansi Flick’s side had more than enough about them to tame the Three Lions, but they were not allowed to.
This is the England we need to see at the World Cup – a team full of players without fear, focused more on scoring goals than preventing them.
With Bellingham, Mount, Saka, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane in this squad, and with Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Jarrod Bowen, Jack Grealish and a whole host of others waiting in the wings, this England attack are too good to be stifled by defensive concerns. They need to be freed from the fear of making mistakes or pushing the boat out. That must be Southgate’s primary goal heading into the World Cup.
That being said, his second job needs to be fixing the defensive line, because oh boy, does it still need fixing.
Southgate must pick his in-form players at both ends of the field, rather than sticking with the stalwarts who shone a few years ago but have seen their stock tumble this season. Harry Maguire is an obvious example but he is far from the only underperformer who must thank their lucky stars that they made a good impression on Southgate two years ago.
Confidence is key, and it’s Southgate’s job to inspire that before the plane for Qatar takes off.