It probably did not need Lukas Podolski’s stunning goal on his final performance for Germany to remind England of the old adage that form is temporary and class is permanent, but a promising display by Gareth Southgate’s players was put into proper context by the 31-year-old’s spectacular, match-winning strike.
Even when winning his 130th cap, Podolski was able to summon the ability to deliver a fairy-tale ending for his international career — though delivering when it matters is what the Germans are so good at. It is a skill than England must develop, and Southgate is the latest manager to be given the thankless task of reviving international football’s sleeping giant.
After an unbeaten four-game run as interim manager during the autumn, Southgate now has the challenge of building England into a genuine force again, and there were some promising signs against the world champions in Dortmund. Jamie Vardy’s pace and movement troubled the Germany defence, Adam Lallana’s running from midfield was another threat and Eric Dier rediscovered the form that made him England’s solitary success story at Euro 2016.
Apart from one second-half slip when under pressure from Leroy Sane, Burnley defender Michael Keane looked confident in a back three alongside Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling, while Dele Alli continued to impress in an attacking midfield role.
Southgate has clearly taken on the England job at a low point in the team’s history, but the only way should be up. And with the likes of the injured Harry Kane still to come back into the team and Marcus Rashford maturing at Manchester United, Southgate will have left Dortmund believing he has something to build on.
England have had many failings at major tournaments in recent years, but one of the main fault lines has been their inability to tactically outsmart their opponents. Roy Hodgson moved away from the traditional reliance on 4-4-2 at Euro 2016 with little success, but Southgate chose this game to tinker with his defence by playing a 3-2-4-1 formation against the world champions.
Chelsea’s success with three at the back under Antonio Conte this season will have alerted Southgate to the system’s advantages, especially with Cahill proving a key figure in Conte’s back three. But England have been so reluctant to abandon their traditional four-man defence: This was the first time they lined up with a back three since Steve McClaren tried the formation against Croatia in October 2006, a game that ended in defeat.
That night, England had a three-man defence of Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry supported by Gary Neville and Ashley Cole at full-back. All five men were Champions League winners and defenders of the highest quality, but even they could not get three at the back to work.
Expecting Cahill, Smalling and debutant Keane to make it click straightaway would have been a tall order. But England looked confident and assured at the back, and although the system will need more work, Southgate will take heart from the way his players performed the system against Germany.