The good news is that England overturned a two-goal deficit team to lead 3-2. The bad news was Harry Maguire and Nick Pope.
Well, at least they entertained us. The next time we see England, they’ll be taking to the pitch for their first World Cup group match against Iran, but what are we to make of them, at this point? Well, England finally woke themselves up after their lengthy goal drought and, with the right wind behind them they can still look like a world class team, but at the end of an evening that confounded every expectation at every turn they still didn’t win, and that now makes six in a row.
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England served up their very best and their very worst in a confusing soup of a performance which suggested that they could both win the World Cup and lose all three group games without getting a point. On the one hand, they turned the game around in the space of fifteen minutes at a point when it seemed to be slipping beyond their grasp, but on the other…
Well, we regret to inform you that Harry Maguire is still doing Harry Maguire things, and that it’s starting to reach the point at which he may have to be withdrawn from this team for his own good, if nothing else. His double-whammy of giving the ball away to Jamal Musiala under absolutely no pressure whatsoever and then approaching a stepover from Musiala in much the same way that a dog might try to operate a mobile phone six minutes into the second half was straight from the playbook that has seen him go from man to meme over the last couple of years.
But this level of self-infliction isn’t limited to Maguire alone. Germany’s best chance of the first half came when John Stones played a backpass to Nick Pope which almost caught the England goalkeeper out. And otherwise, the most notable moment of a plodding first 45 came when Stones twanged his hamstring under no challenge whatsoever, which resulted in him having to be withdrawn.
And in the closing minutes of the game, with the mood around Wembley having been lifted from the first rumblings of BOOOOOOOO to WE’RE GOING TO PISS THIS TINPOT WORLD CUP, Pope’s mangling of what should have been a routine save from a Serge Gnabry shot handed Kai Havertz a second goal and Germany a draw. It was the latest in a stream of needless individual mistakes from players who do know better, at the end of an evening that felt like it taught us nothing at all and everything we need to know about this England team’s strengths and weaknesses.
Losing to Hungary in Leipzig had been an outlier of a result for Germany, who’d previously gone unbeaten since losing to England in the second round of Euro 2020. The Hungary defeat loaded this game with as little jeopardy for them as it had for their already-relegated hosts, meaning that this was a match from the friendlier end of the competitive spectrum.
In their last match prior to the Hungary defeat they’d beaten Italy 5-2, a match in which they led 5-0 at one point. Results haven’t all been quite this outstanding – they drew four consecutive matches earlier this year – but it was a run of thirteen games, overall. As may be expected from a team whose attacking line is led by Timo Werner, they’d also struggled for goals during 2022, but this was a team plenty capable of adding to Gareth Southgate’s woes.
The first half didn’t tell us a great deal about either team. England managed one five minute burst midway through, when it looked for all the world as though they might score. A beautiful curling pass put Raheem Sterling through, but his shot was saved by ter Stegen. A minute later, Phil Foden pulled the ball back a yard behind Harry Kane. A couple of minutes after this, Kane attempted a volley from an angle, but it sailed a couple of feet beyond the far post.
The mood began to swing with the first goal and turned to booing when Kai Havertz, under no pressure at all, curled the ball inside Pope’s post to double Germany’s lead. The move that led to the goal had started when Maguire lost possession of the ball while far too far up the pitch. The goal completed a quite miserable first twenty minutes of the second half for England, which seemed all the more surprising considering that their first half performance had not been completely disastrous.
But then came a breath of inspiration. Sterling and Foden had been replaced by Mason Mount and Bukayo Saka just before the second Germany goal, but within five minutes of Germany doubling their lead Luke Shaw had pulled one back with exactly the sort of goal that you’d expect from a team that hadn’t scored from open play in the last six months, thumped into the ground and then almost scrambled away by a sliding defender, and within three minutes of that Saka found Mount whose 25-yard shot brought them level at 2-2.
And with ten minutes to play, a further VAR intervention came when Jude Bellingham, who’d been outstanding all evening, was on the receiving end of a high and clumsy challenge from Nico Schlotterbeck. Harry Kane dispatched the penalty, and indulged himself with a little primal scream therapy with his subsequent celebration. The comeback was complete. Wembley was back to its raucous best. And then Pope and Havertz intervened to puncture England’s celebratory balloon somewhat.
So it turns out that Gareth Southgate can make a subsitution that positively impacts upon his team. Of course, whether you think this was a matter of him being brave, being desperate, or whether this was just a case of a stopped clock telling the right time, it did at least put a little spring in English steps ahead of the World Cup. On a perplexing evening, England showed greater character and heart than they have at any point since Euro 2020, but also considerable shortcomings. At least if they play like this in the Middle East in a few weeks time, they’ll be entertaining.