Gareth Southgate has described England’s Nations League meeting with Germany at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday as a “brilliant test of where we are” as the World Cup draws closer.
England head to Munich having suffered a shock 1-0 loss to Hungary in their Group C opener but the meeting with Germany, one of only five fixtures before the 2022 World Cup, represents a far sterner test.
England will take encouragement from their last meeting with Germany, when Southgate’s side triumphed 2-0 at Wembley to secure their place in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals last summer.
But with Hansi Flick having replaced Joachim Low and Germany unbeaten in a year, can England repeat the feat? And will Southgate’s players seize this opportunity to impress as Southgate ponders his World Cup selection decisions?
World Cup places up for grabs
Southgate has said he already has a “pretty good idea” of his strongest team but there are still places in his World Cup squad up for grabs as England continue their preparations for Qatar.
With only five games remaining between now and November, Southgate is using England’s Nations League campaign to experiment with personnel. “We have not got friendlies to try it, so we have to do it in these types of games,” he said on Saturday.
That experimentation included handing debuts to James Justin and Jarrod Bowen on Saturday.
Leicester full-back Justin endured a difficult afternoon, struggling with a knock before he was withdrawn at the break, but Bowen enhanced his credentials with a positive performance on the right-hand side of England’s attack.
Bowen will hope for more minutes at the Allianz Arena but Southgate has plenty of others to consider too.
He described Raheem Sterling as “absolutely fine” having been an unused substitute on Saturday, while Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Kalvin Phillips and Conor Gallagher are also vying for places in the starting line-up having been omitted against Hungary.
John Stones is another player in the frame for a start having appeared alongside Southgate at his press conference on Monday and the Manchester City defender admitted he and his team-mates have the World Cup squad firmly in their minds.
“Everyone is fighting for their place at the World Cup and trying to play well,” he said. Southgate added: “The mindset of this group is that they want to push and they want to perform well.
“Every one of them wants to play tomorrow night, there’s no doubting that. There’s huge motivation in the group.”
Should Southgate ditch the back three?
One of the biggest decisions facing Southgate ahead of this game centres on England’s formation. Should he persist with a back three or switch to a four?
He favoured a back three in Saturday’s defeat to Hungary, using Kyle Walker, Conor Coady and Harry Maguire at centre-back and James Justin and Trent Alexander-Arnold as wing-backs.
The approach was met with criticism, however, with Southgate facing accusations of being overly cautious. It was only after Kalvin Phillips replaced Coady in the 79th minute and England reverted to a back four that they finally began to threaten.
England have of course shown the benefits of using a back three in their major tournament appearances under Southgate, reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 and adopting the system again to overcome Germany on their way to the Euros final last summer.
England team news
- Phil Foden will miss out having tested positive for Covid.
- Gareth Southgate expects Marc Guehi to be available following an injury.
- Fikayo Tomori and James Justin will not be risked against Germany due to fitness issues.
- Raheem Sterling is in contention to start having been an unused substitute against Hungary.
But there is a growing feeling that, as well as being unnecessarily cautious and inhibiting England in an offensive sense, the formation does not suit enough of Southgate’s players.
Alexander-Arnold, for example, is far better suited to playing at full-back rather than wing-back while midfielders such as Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice are more effective when there is an extra midfielder alongside them to cover their forward runs.
Southgate defended his preference for a back three on Saturday. “Everybody who started the game is in a position that they have either played regularly with us, or regularly with their club,” he said.
The England boss might also remind his critics that England have failed to win two of the last three competitive games in which they started with a back four rather than three – drawing 1-1 with Hungary and Poland in World Cup Qualifying.
But it might take a stronger argument than that to convince England supporters that a back three is the national team’s future. His system against Germany might hint at his long-term vision.
Germany mirror Bayern under Flick
Germany come into this game having drawn their last two – against the Netherlands and Italy – but, with eight consecutive wins before that, they are unbeaten since being knocked out of Euro 2020 by England a year ago at Wembley.
Hansi Flick replaced Joachim Low in the wake of that tournament and the 57-year-old has restored positivity and optimism around the country’s national team by placing greater emphasis on a large contingent of Bayern Munich players.
Flick, himself a former Bayern player and coach, included seven players from his former side in his team to face Italy on Saturday, with Manuel Neuer, Niklas Sule, Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, Thomas Muller, Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry all starting.
It was the first time since Germany’s triumphant 2014 World Cup campaign that they have started a game with seven Bayern players. Low attempted to move away from the approach in the latter stages of his reign but Flick has instead chosen to embrace it.
He even uses the same system.
Low used a 3-4-3 shape at the Euros but Germany’s current 4-2-3-1 formation, with Muller behind the striker and Gnabry and Sane on the flanks, closely resembles the one with which Flick won the Champions League while in charge of Bayern in 2020.
“You can see elements of what he did with Bayern Munich,” said Southgate at his press conference. “There’s a lot of experience and cohesion of working with him. You can see it in their counter-pressing and the pressing of the forwards especially.”
The Bayern dominance is not popular with all followers of Germany’s national team. It also serves to highlight issues of competitiveness in the Bundesliga, where Bayern have won 10 consecutive titles.
But after eight wins and two draws from 10 games since the chastening Euro 2020 campaign, it is undoubtedly yielding better results. England will on Tuesday face a Germany side far stronger than the one they overcame at Wembley a year ago.
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