Bukayo Saka brings England back to life after Germany benefit from familiar defensive flaws

LONDON — It doesn’t mean that the 70 minutes that proceeded it did not happen, let alone the five prior games that meant England were already relegated from the Nations League. Little about England’s thrilling fightback to briefly turn a 2-0 deficit against Germany into a 3-2 lead is necessarily going to be replicated in Qatar in 56 days’ time.

But at least for a moment, the sun burst through the clouds that had gathered over English football in recent months in a 3-3 draw with Germany where a win was canceled out by Kai Havertz. A team that had become agony to watch reminded the public why they fell head over heels last summer. Who knows if it will last into the World Cup and when the sniping over Gareth Southgate’s negativity will resume. For now, however fleeting it may be, that bond is worth far more than two points in this second-tier competition.

How appropriate it was that the man to reforge that reconnection was a player so universally popular in this part of London. No one’s name was cheered more loudly by the Wembley crowd than Bukayo Saka’s even when the England men’s player of the year was merely among the substitutes bench. It was easy to see why. As soon as Saka and Mason Mount got on the front foot there was a punch and vibrancy to England’s play that had been missing since, well, you might have to go back to the 4-0 win over Ukraine in the quarterfinals of Euro 2020.

In three minutes the scores were level, Luke Shaw volleying in at the back post after Saka had found Reece James in a crossing position. The Arsenal No.7 would then go driving through the German backline, teeing up Mount to bend a wonderful first-time shot past Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Then he would slip a pass into the outstanding Jude Bellingham in the penalty area, Nico Schlotterbeck’s clumsy tackle through the back of his Borussia Dortmund teammate giving Harry Kane the chance to put England ahead from the penalty spot. Saka might even have won it at the death, drawing a brilliant save from ter Stegen in added time.

Even a fumble from Nick Pope, skittish on the ball and far from himself when it came to shot stopping, that allowed Havertz to equalize could not spoil the mood. Everything in Wembley changed, at least for those who had stayed through an hour-plus of tedium. Southgate’s changes had fixed the problems created by Southgate’s selection.

But those issues are there and they are there across the side. For most of this game, they created precious little, when it takes passes as excellent as Shaw’s to tee up Raheem Sterling in the first half then there is work to be done.

The England manager has more faith in Sterling than the financial markets do but a run of two goals in 11 games since Euro 2020 means it is worth at least considering the merits of Marcus Rashford, who at his best can offer similar qualities as a support striker to his Chelsea counterpart. After another match where he struggled to make a meaningful impact, Phil Foden could have no complaints if Saka started in his place against Iran in their World Cup opener. 

Aside from their transition game England had precious little idea what to do with the ball at their feet beyond hoping that Bellingham could beat a man or two. He often could and his partnership with Declan Rice improved as this game wore on. The biggest issue might be getting the ball to them in the first place.

Pope appears to have beaten Aaron Ramsdale in the race to be first reserve behind Jordan Pickford, but the Newcastle man offers none of the ball progression of his counterparts at Arsenal and Everton. The nervy moments in possession were one thing but they come with goalkeepers who want the ball at their feet too. More concerning might be how slow England were to get the ball out of their penalty area when it came through to their No. 1.

In the 19th minute, an aimless punt upfield came through to Pope, who held possession for several seconds under no pressure only to then roll the ball a few feet out to John Stones. Immediately the German press was upon England, a chance to advance the ball upfield frittered away by slow play at the back. Add to that his clumsy spilling of Serge Gnabry’s shot and it was a night to forget for Pope.

Still, it was nothing compared to the turmoil suffered by Harry Maguire. Even if you believe that Southgate’s commitment to those players who got him so far in past tournaments is admirable there comes a stage when to persevere with players in trying circumstances is to do more harm than good. The smattering of boos that greeted his presence in the starting XI looked less like fuel for the fire than a grim warning of what was to come for the Manchester United captain.

A solid first half was swiftly undone by three errors that added up to two Germany goals. The first two were brutally basic. Maguire simply did not look up when passing out to the left, gifting possession to Jamal Musiala before hacking him to the ground as the Bayern Munich youngster nutmegged him. The 29-year-old defender might have gotten away with the concession of possession 15 minutes later but Havertz punished him with a brilliant curling strike.

Maguire’s nerves after the opener seemed to be contagious. Eric Dier, dependable in the first half, was slipping across the turf in the second and for a moment England looked there for the taking in a way they were so rarely before Euro 2020 ended in heartbreak.

If the World Cup were not so near on the horizon the solutions for what ails England might be more apparent. There are options to replace Maguire but none of Marc Guehi, Fikayo Tomori or Ben White have been afforded many minutes in a Three Lions shirt.

Equally, if Southgate wants to revert to the approach that took him to a World Cup semifinal and second place at the European Championships – his selection of an extra defender in response to Friday’s tame loss in Italy suggests he does – then he can ill afford to carry defenders who gift goals to their opposition. The Southgate template (keep the shot count down for both teams and trust that your forwards or a center back at a set piece will make more of their chances than the opposition) demands a defense that can keep their opponent in the region of 0.5 to one expected goals.

Southgate has the forwards to turn games, even from seemingly doomed positions, but if England are really to make their mark on Qatar they need to be sure that they have a back six that won’t demand their forwards deliver what Saka did tonight.

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