It is always revealing when a manager namechecks an opposition player before a game and it was no different when Gareth Southgate did so on Sunday. Asked to assess Germany, whom England face in the Nations League at Wembley on Monday night – in a tie that has become fraught for so many reasons – he zeroed in on one man, betraying 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 organises the game for them and he reads it so well.”
The envy is rooted in Kimmich being the type of player that England lack. A little like Luka Modric, Frenkie de Jong, Jorginho and Marco Verratti. The link between this group? They have each been central to the most painful defeats of Southgate’s six-year England tenure. Modric helped to move Croatia away from England in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, ditto De Jong for the Netherlands in the 2019 Nations League semi-final and both Jorginho and Verratti for Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
After five matches without a win and all of the angst and introspection, the fear that Southgate has entered his international end game, he is desperate to turn back the clock to the summer of last year when he enjoyed perhaps his finest hour – the 2-0 Wembley win against Germany in the last 16 of the European Championship. Could a similar victory change the narrative after what has been and ahead of what is to come – the World Cup in Qatar?
Kimmich played at right wing-back in the Euro 2020 tie, filling in for his team. But he was back in midfield when Germany hosted England in June in the reverse Nations League fixture, dictating the tempo, pulling the strings. England would pinch a 1-1 draw when they rallied in the final 20 minutes – an isolated purple patch in what has been a wretched campaign.
“We don’t have that sort of player in this country,” Southgate said. “I don’t think we develop that sort of player well through youth football and through academies. Other countries probably have a little bit more focus on that.”
So what is the solution? How do England impose themselves on Germany? From listening to Southgate after England had trained at Tottenham’s Enfield HQ two things were clear and one of them involved what he would not do. The manager noted that the time was tight – between the 1-0 loss against Italy in Milan last Friday and Germany’s visit and also to the World Cup. England will not play again before they take on Iran in their opening group game on 21 November. As such, the emphasis is more on “trying to bed things in” than experimentation – say, trying a playmaker like Phil Foden or Jack Grealish in central midfield.
“I’ve never seen their clubs do it,” Southgate said, when this was put to him. “We have talked about the passing of Trent [Alexander-Arnold] – that’s why we gave him a go in midfield [against Andorra last year]. That got completely lambasted. If you are not doing that every day for your club in certain positions, it is very difficult to transfer that on to an international stage.”
Southgate’s more proactive point was that we are where we are, he has to work with what he has and, in the pivotal area under discussion, it means Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Jordan Henderson and James Ward‑Prowse. (Kalvin Phillips is injured and a major fitness doubt for Qatar).
“We cannot buy somebody, we cannot generate somebody,” Southgate said. “We try to find different ways of building from the back to allow us that lack of a playmaking pivot. We have players with other excellent attributes and we try to get the most out of that.”
Southgate wants to stick to what he knows and that includes his three-at-the-back system; to work smarter and better. He cannot countenance a repetition of old shortcomings. He simply trusts the process, with a little fine-tuning, which includes the need to transition more incisively.
Raheem Sterling offered an insight into the Germany preparations. “Even today, we had to go over things to try to find where we can find that extra man with this five at the back,” the winger said. “Do we put a midfielder higher up in the buildup? The manager is working on things to get us that space in the attacking third to try to change [the situation]. It’s not a time to panic.”
Also interesting was what felt like a reservation from Sterling about his role in the 3-4-3, which is as more of an inside forward as the width comes from the wing-back behind him.
“If a team plays with a back five and matches you up, their centre-half follows you in,” Sterling said. “It’s about trying to find key areas in the final third where we can get an extra player. There are benefits for the forwards and the difficulty is that you have always got your back to goal. I’m normally wide, which is a position I’m more than comfortable playing. The more we play it, the better it will be.”
Southgate is obsessed with ensuring that the marginal gains go in his team’s favour; the nuances of a formation; balance and “providing the players with clear pictures of how you want to play.”
Above all, this has to be a time for unity. “In these moments, you’ve got to stay resilient and stick to your beliefs – approach every day in the right way,” Southgate said. “The players have responded brilliantly to that.”