Will Southgate pick up the pace in the Euros?
England will probably never have a better chance of ending their tournament hoodoo against Germany
If a teacher wrote an end-of-term report on England and Germany’s progress into the knockout stages of Euro 2020, it would be a short, succinct “must, and can, do better”.
This evening, the two most underwhelming sides in the tournament lumber into a round of 16 tie at Wembley (5pm), desperately trying to kid their supporters they can progress deeper into the competition. At least beyond the next round.
The game has much to live up to. An examination of the previous 11 confrontations at World Cups or European Championships reveals a history of drama and controversy: Goals that were but weren’t, goals that weren’t but were, and penalty shoot-outs. Oh, those penalty
All but three of those ties ended badly for England and you’d probably get good odds on that miserable run continuing tonight.
However, it is because both sides have been so limp and indifferent that makes tonight’s game so fascinating.
It would be fair to say England’s campaign has yet to ignite. The ultra-conservative Gareth Southgate would have taken great satisfaction from the way they achieved the first objective of tournament football – qualifying from the group without conceding a goal.
Yet they only scored twice, despite a wealth of attacking talent, and it remains to be seen whether he loosens the shackles and injects pace via Bundesliga-based Jadon Sancho or retains his trusted and pedestrian 4-2-3-1, with Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips protecting the back four and the heavily-criticised Harry Kane operating on a different wavelength to a midfield trio of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling.
Germany have under-performed for months. Thumped 6-0 in Spain and humiliated at home by North Macedonia, and departing coach Joachim Low was forced to concede his young squad needed experience and recalled veterans Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels, who were discarded after a woeful 2018 World Cup campaign.
It has made little difference. They conceded five goals in making fortuitous progress from Group F and look surprisingly vulnerable against pace, although England so far have been ponderous and predictable.
So, the stage is set for a tasty confrontation. Particularly for Muller and Rice …