IIt’s always instructive when a manager checks an opposing player’s name before a game and it was no different than Gareth Southgate did on Sunday. When asked to assess Germany, who face England in the Nations League at Wembley on Monday night – in a tense draw for so many reasons – he focused on one man and betrayed admiration and envy in equal measure.
“Joshua Kimmich is fundamental to the team and the way they play,” Southgate said of the midfield controller. “He organizes the game for her and he reads it so well.”
The envy is rooted in Kimmich being the type of player England lacks. A bit like Luka Modric, Frenkie De Jong, Jorginho and Marco Verratti. The connection between this group? They were each central to the most painful defeats of Southgate’s six-year tenure in England. Modric helped move Croatia away from England in the 2018 World Cup semifinals, as did De Jong for the Netherlands in the 2019 Nations League semifinals and both Jorginho and Verratti for Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
After five games without a win and all the fear and introspection, the fear that Southgate has entered his international final, he is dying to turn the clock back to last summer when he had perhaps his finest hour – the 2.0 Wembley – Victory against Germany in the round of 16 of the European Championship. Could a similar victory change the narrative after what was and before what is yet to come – the World Cup in Qatar?
Kimmich played at right-back at Euro 2020, filling in for his team. But he was back in midfield when Germany hosted England in the reverse game of the Nations League in June, dictating the pace and pulling the strings. England would go 1-1 if they rallied in the final 20 minutes – an isolated purple smudge in a pathetic campaign.
“We don’t have players like that in this country,” Southgate said. “I don’t think we develop this type of player well through youth football and academies. Other countries are probably focusing a bit more on that.”
So what’s the solution? How does England impose itself on Germany? Listening to Southgate after England trained at Tottenham’s Enfield headquarters, two things were clear and one of them concerned what he wouldn’t do. The manager noted that time was of the essence – between last Friday’s 1-0 defeat by Italy in Milan and Germany’s visit as well as the World Cup. England will not play again before taking on Iran in their first group game on November 21. So the emphasis is more on “trying to embed things” than on experimentation – say, trying out a playmaker like Phil Foden or Jack Grealish in central midfield.
“I’ve never seen their clubs do that,” Southgate said when told that. “We talked about the death of Trent [Alexander-Arnold] – that’s why we tried him in midfield [against Andorra last year]. That was totally screwed. If you don’t do that every day in certain positions for your club, it’s very difficult to transfer that to an international stage.”
Southgate’s more proactive point was that where we are, he has to work with what he has and in the crucial area being discussed, that means Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Jordan Henderson and James Ward-Prowse. (Kalvin Phillips is injured and a major fitness doubt for Qatar).
“We can’t buy anyone, we can’t create anyone,” Southgate said. “We’re trying to find different ways to build up from behind to allow us the lack of a playmaker. We have players with other excellent qualities and we try to make the most of them.”
Southgate wants to stick to what he knows, and that includes his three-against-the-back system; work smarter and better. He cannot tolerate a repetition of old defects. He just trusts the process, with a little tweaking, which includes the need to make more concise transitions.
Raheem Sterling offered an insight into the Germany preparations. “Even today we had to go through everything to figure out where to find that extra man with those five at the back,” said the winger. “Are we going to put a midfielder up in the build-up? The manager is working on things to get us that place in the attacking third to try and change us [the situation]. There is no time to panic.”
Also interesting was what felt like a reservation from Sterling about his role in the 3-4-3, which is more of a center forward than the distance coming from the full-back behind him.
“If a team is playing with a back five and they get you together, central defense follows you,” Sterling said. “It’s about finding key areas in the last third where we can get an extra player. There are advantages to the strikers and the difficulty is that you always have your back to the goal. I’m usually wide, which is a position I play more than comfortably. The more we play it, the better it gets.”
Southgate is obsessed with making sure marginal gains go in his team’s favour; the nuances of a formation; Balance and “giving players clear images of how they want to play.”
Above all, this must be a time of unity. “It’s in those moments that you have to stay resilient and hold on to your beliefs — approach each day the right way,” Southgate said. “The players reacted excellently to that.”
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