England have been relegated from Nations League Group A3 and Germany cannot reach the finals, but there will be far more than professional pride on the line when the sides meet at Wembley on Monday, writes Sky Sports News‘ senior reporter Rob Dorsett.
England suffered a 1-0 defeat to Italy on Friday which saw Gareth Southgate’s side extend their winless run to five matches, with just the fixture against Germany still to play before the World Cup begins in November.
The loss in Milan means England are enduring their worst run in eight years and another reverse would threaten to undo much of the hard work Southgate has done just as he and his side prepare to head to Qatar…
‘Cracks beginning to show amid slump in form’
When he took over as England manager in 2016, Gareth Southgate said one of his key aims was to make the country fall in love with its football team again.
Decades of underachievement from the men’s team in major tournaments, together with an unhealthy dislike on both sides between the players and the national media, had created a pretty toxic atmosphere around the whole England set up.
That malevolence was only heightened by a feeling within the squad of ‘them and us’, with cliques commonplace, separated along club lines.
Talk to Southgate off camera now and he still thinks it’s one of his greatest achievements in the six years he’s been in the job – to reunite the players, the media and the England supporters in a mutual, positive direction.
A direction where it’s enjoyable to train and play within an England training camp, enjoyable to pay your money to watch the team play and enjoyable to report on the young superstars, who are more accessible and approachable than ever before.
The problem is, that togetherness was easy to foster and strengthen with the team performing so well on the pitch. How could any real England fan, or England reporter, criticise the manager or players when they’d reached a World Cup semi-final and a Euros final in consecutive tournaments?
How could any player complain they weren’t getting much game time if the team kept winning?
Now, for the first time in Southgate’s reign, the cracks are beginning to show in some of those key supporter-media-team relationships and the World Cup and Euros successes of the recent past seem further away than ever.
Players backing Southgate amid fan, media pressure
England have been relegated from the Nations League, have lost consecutive internationals and are in real danger of heading to Qatar on the back of a confidence-shattering six-game winless run.
Southgate has been booed by some of England’s hardcore fans at the end of each of the last two internationals. Contrast that to when, in Russia four years ago, lots of England fans wore waistcoats in tribute to the main man.
Or compare the general attitude towards Southgate now with that of just a year ago, when a favourite chant from the England masses was still “Southgate you’re the one”.
At the same time as some sections of the support are turning on him, significant parts of the media have also turned against the England boss, accusing him of being tactically inept and, even worse, being hypocritical in breaching his own stated philosophy of only picking players in form.
The good news for Southgate is that, while some chunks of the media and fanbase have turned against him, the players seemingly have not.
Raheem Sterling emphasised that. A Southgate prodigy through and through, the Chelsea winger has likened the England manager to a father figure ever since the 17-year-old Sterling was first selected by him for the U21s.
“Since the manager has come in he’s always tried to protect us,” Sterling said. “He’s always tried to make the environment really calm for us so that we can go out there and do what we need to do on the football field.
“None of us were proud of those performances [the five games without a win] and I don’t think it is for Gareth to shoulder all of that blame.
“We’ve got players in our squad that have played at the highest level and we need to take some of that responsibility and start to put some of these performances right.”
From what I’ve been told, Sterling’s sentiments are shared almost unanimously within the England squad.
Even so, that sense of shared direction, shared purpose and shared ambition between fans, media and team that was so hard-won by Southgate is under threat for the first time in six years.
Germany clash a final chance to reconnect before World Cup
The England boss is a truly modern manager, in knowing his relationship with the media is key to communicating with the fans.
He is thoughtful and respectable whenever he speaks, so it was a characteristically polite defiance that defined his final pre-match news conference before the World Cup, on the eve of this game with Germany.
It’s clear he is keen to keep the media onside and is just as determined to avoid criticising his players in public – whatever he is saying to them in private. Positivity and optimism are buzzwords around the England camp.
So, when Southgate spoke, there were gentle reminders of how well England have done under him in major tournaments, rather than belligerent force-feeding of past achievements.
His record, remember, is second to no other England manager except Sir Alf Ramsay.
There was no criticism of the media, even in the face of some pointed questioning from me and other journalists in the news conference room at Tottenham’s plush training ground, and no criticism of any of the England fans either, of whom he said he could understand their desire to boo.
There was only a hint of excuse-making for his team’s poor form and the 450+ minutes of football they’ve now played without a goal from open play.
But Southgate knows that this match against Germany – England’s final game before the World Cup – is incredibly significant.
A dead rubber in Nations League terms it may be – England are already relegated and Germany can’t win Group A3. But it is a final chance for the team to impress and reconnect with the supporters, with a sell-out crowd of 90,000 at Wembley expected.
A final chance, too, to force us in the media to write and broadcast something nice about an England performance – something that hasn’t happened since the 3-0 win over Ivory Coast in March. That win, by the way, was in the middle of a 22-game unbeaten run for England, which right now seems a lifetime ago.
A final chance as well for the England squad – so many of whom are out of form, and out of favour, at their clubs – to share a confidence-boosting reminder of what it’s like to win.
At stake is that final chance for supporters, media and the England squad to reconnect, as Southgate is so desperate for us all to do, and cheer together for a final time before we all head to Qatar.
Quite simply, England have to beat Germany. The next two months will be so much more enjoyable for everyone if they do.
Rarely has a game with nothing riding on it had so much riding on it.
England host Germany at Wembley on Monday at 7.45pm in their final Nations League game of their Group A3 campaign. It will also be the Three Lions’ last competitive match before this winter’s World Cup.
Gareth Southgate is expected to name his 26-man squad for Qatar 2022 on October 20, which will be well before FIFA’s deadline of Sunday November 13.
England face Iran in their opening World Cup group game on November 21 at the Khalifa International Stadium, Doha.
England’s World Cup Group B fixtures
November 21: Iran (Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan) – kick-off 1pm
November 25: USA (Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor) – kick-off 7pm
November 29: Wales (Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan) – kick-off 7pm