Ultimately, though, England should not be too desolate bearing in mind their own contribution to a game that doubled up as Lukas Podolski’s farewell to the Nationalmannschaft. Podolski chose a stylish way to mark the occasion, scoring the game’s decisive moment with a firecracker of a shot and the lesson for England, perhaps, is that at this level they will have to develop a more clinical edge when it comes to their own chances.
They were not certainly not short of opportunities and Southgate can feel his decision to experiment with a 3-4-3 formation, with Michael Keane making an accomplished full debut, was justified by the overall performance. A reasonable argument could be made that England were the better team for the opening hour and, though Southgate will not want to make a habit of gallant defeat, there were many parts of his team’s performance that must have encouraged him. He was not exaggerating when he commented that, until going behind, England had looked the more likely winners.
What they could not do was find a goal to supplement some bright, inventive attacking play in and around the penalty area and that always risked the kind of moment that Podolski produced to say his goodbyes, 30 yards from Joe Hart’s goal. Podolski’s shot was still rising as it soared into the top right-hand corner. It was his 49th goal of a 130-cap career and a night of tributes in recognition of his achievements finished with a personal lap of honour. He was so well received, he went round a second time.
For Southgate, Podolski’s contribution made it a night of disappointment in the end because, in his own words, he has “never been someone overly pleased in defeat”. Most of his post-match observations, however, were reflecting on the positive strides he could see from his team and England should still be in a relatively positive frame of mind going into the World Cup qualifier against Lithuania at Wembley on Sunday.
Southgate’s new system was a nod to what Antonio Conte has done at Chelsea and, after only one training session trying a different shape, he was entitled to be pleased about the structure of his team. The last time an England manager experimented with three centre-halves was October 2006 when Steve McClaren was in charge of a fairly wretched defeat in Croatia. Before then, it was Peter Taylor’s solitary game against Italy in January 2000. Kevin Keegan and Glenn Hoddle had a dabble but this was only the third occasion since the turn of the century that an England side has dared to move away from an orthodox back four. England might have lost but Southgate can feel emboldened to go back to this shape.
Keane looked calm and assured alongside Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill whereas Ryan Bertrand and Kyle Walker were naturally suited to the wing-back roles. Jake Livermore was positioned alongside Eric Dier to give the team some midfield security and the front three of Adam Lallana, Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy had the licence to interchange positions. That trio caused plenty of problems but Lallana’s best chance came back off the post and Alli was not decisive enough with his clearest opportunity, also in the first half. Alli had been teed up by Vardy inside the penalty area and had the time to take a touch and steady himself. Marc-André ter Stegen, deputising for Manuel Neuer, was quick off his goal-line to smother the shot and Southgate’s team never had a better chance again.
That caught up with England in the 68th minute when Podolski decided to let fly with his formidable left foot and decorated the match with a goal of extraordinary quality. Yet it is possible to play well and lose, even if it is not a habit any manager wants. England played with a competent structure, knocking the ball around confidently and, perhaps most impressively of all, they seemed more than happy to take the game to the world champions. The only criticism during that opening period related to the repertoire of songs from England’s end about winning wars and shooting down planes. Evidently we are also still in an age when many England followers feel compelled to boo the German national anthem. At least the team were trying to show they were not stuck in the past.
It helped, perhaps, that Germany gave the impression throughout long parts that they believed it was little more than a glorified testimonial on behalf of Podolski. Leroy Sané became more influential in the second half, showing the nimble running and quick footwork that has made him so productive for Manchester City over recent months, but it was not until Podolski’s goal that Germany had their first 15-minute period when they asserted their authority. Even then there was always the threat that Vardy’s speed and directness could trouble the less mobile Mats Hummels on the counter-attack. When Alli and Lallana are playing with this fluidity it becomes even more difficult to see a way back for Wayne Rooney.
Southgate brought on Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse during the second half to give the two Southampton players their first senior caps. As for Keane, the manager went out of his way to praise the performance of the Burnley defender, describing it as an “excellent debut”. England had matched their opponents for long spells but Germany’s ability to win these closely contested encounters is an art, not a coincidence, and Podolski’s goal goes straight into his portfolio of outstanding individual moments.TG