Germany were fortunate to have defeated England last night in an international friendly at the Signal Iduna Park last night, running out as 1-0 winners thanks to a scorching strike from Lukas Podolski on his final appearance for the country.
New England boss Gareth Southgate was in experimental mood with his squad last night and stunned many people by choosing to operate with the revitalised 3-4-3 system, along with handing debuts to a number of young players. Michael Keane started for the first time at senior international level, whilst James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond were also rewarded with their debuts in cameo appearances off the bench.
The intentions of both teams early on were clear and they both opted to utilise a high press in the opening few minutes, with Germany starting the match with better organisation and co-ordination in their press, forcing England into long balls out from the back or from Joe Hart behind. They cut off the passing lanes towards the wing backs early in the contest and suffocated England when they were deep, but failed to really make their press count and failed to maintain the same level of intensity throughout.
It was clear to see that the new system had been worked on and trained well prior to the contest, with England’s structure being clear to see throughout. There was good spacing between the three central defenders and both the wing-backs were pushed high and wide up the pitch, allowing a constant outball out wide for the team and providing sufficient defensive cover when facing Germany’s counter-attacks. This was cognate to how Chelsea have used their 3-4-3 system this season under Antonio Conte with clear superiority in numbers when defending, displaying a good understanding and organisation of the roles in the team.
Jake Livermore was a player that proved to be a thorn in the Germany sides throughout the game, showing aggression and discipline in the midfield. Although he was often wasteful in possession, he looked to progress the ball quickly and was well-positioned particularly in the first-half. Livermore broke up play well and prevented both Julian Weigl and Toni Kroos from penetrating England through the middle with vertical balls towards Podolski and Timo Werner, restricting the two defensive midfielders from initiating any real purposeful attack.
Although there was positional discipline from England throughout and there was a clear structure that made them hard to break down, it was clear that there was an element of freedom awarded to the attacking trio of Dele Alli, Adam Lallana and Jamie Vardy.
From their first minutes to their last, the trio were fluid in their positioning and were relentless in their pressing of the Germany defence, pegging them back and forcing them into a number of defensive errors. Of course Joachim Low’s men were wasteful in possession and were not anywhere near as good as they often are playing out from the back, but that was the outcome of England’s unrelenting pressure and intensity high up the pitch.
One player that particularly impressed for England was the ever-charismatic Dele Alli. Not only did the Spurs man show quality on the ball and flair, but also a lot of tactical intelligence – something that Southgate had very clearly instructed and deployed.
There were numerous occasions throughout the match in which either Lallana and Alli drifted inwards into the halfspaces, sucking Germany’s defensive organisation out of place and making both players hard to mark. By doing this, both of England’s main creative outlets were given the freedom to roam between the lines and in and out of their set positions, causing Germany problems throughout.
For example, as shown in the picture below, Alli’s movement towards the ball in the right halfspace dragged five Germany players towards him before he dummied, vacating a massive space down the channel for Vardy to look to exploit with a one-two with Alli. This kind of intelligence and understanding is something that we need to see more of if England are to progress, with the team’s recent displays being somewhat tactically outdated.
A key error that was made in the match by Germany boss Low was clear to see, and that was by using Kroos and Weigl in a double pivot. On paper, you have one of the best, most influential midfielders in the world in the form of Kroos and you have one of the most promising midfielders in the world. It’s a great looking partnership, but they were both looking to do exactly the same thing.
Weigl holds major responsibility at his club Borussia Dortmund to create from deep, penetrate teams through central areas and act solely in doing so. However, with Kroos also sitting deep and forming the double pivot, there was no connection in the midfield that could link defence to attack in efficient fashion. The 4-4-1-1 deployed from Germany had no genuine attacking midfielder there, with Podolski playing more as a shadow striker than a number ten. This meant that with Weigl and Kroos sitting deep, Germany couldn’t play the way they wanted to going forward and were restricted with there being no way to progress the play centrally.
England were still faced with two excellent players though in midfield, and were still required to take advantage of it in order to reap the full rewards and trouble Germany. However they duly delivered and it was Alli and Lallana who, yet again, proved to be the catalysts in stretching their opposition.
When England were in possession, the partnership of Eric Dier and Livermore were faced against Weigl and Kroos. However, with Alli and Lallana consistently drifting into these halfspaces and consistently pulling away from their full-backs, they gave the Germany midfielders another man to deal with. This left England with a three against two situation in the middle, often forcing Weigl and Kroos to pull wider than they are used to in order to cover the movement of Alli and Lallana.
Utilising such a bold formation against a good Germany side was certainly a risk from Southgate and it was one that was frowned upon prior to the match, but perhaps that wasn’t his biggest risk. Using Alli and Lallana in wider positions when both are self-confessed number ten’s was a hugely brave decision and it was one that paid off. Whilst neither have the archetypal components that wingers often possess, they interchanged well and were at the very heart of everything good that England did on the night.
Germany were regularly halted by the defensive organisation in transition that England set out with, as the 3-4-3 became more of a 5-2-2-1 when pressing from the front or simply holding when their opposition had a prolonged period on the ball. This entailed Kyle Walker and Ryan Bertrand dropping deep to form the back five, Livermore and Dier holding their positions just ahead of the defence, Vardy continuously pressing from the front and Alli and Lallana venturing out into wider positions to cover Joshua Kimmich and Jonas Hector respectively when it was necessary, but staying central otherwise.
By doing this, England were able to set up a deep block in their own half, preventing Germany from finding any real purposeful outlet as there was such a disciplined organisation, meaning that there was no real way through. This limited Germany largely to finding the wide areas and restricted them cutting England open with through balls.
One thing that was noticeable about the way in which England set up was how well they were able to turn defence into attack within a matter of seconds. Although Germany’s often disorganised press and poor shape in large parts aided England in finding space, England played attractive football that was quick on the turn and attacking-minded throughout.
Dier is shown in the below image to beat the first line of press well before finding Alli with a vertical ball through the second line of press, helping England to progress the play and move forward quickly and efficiently through a lay-off to Lallana. However when Weigl was brought off for Emre Can, a different type of midfielder was brought into the equasion and the Liverpool man broke up play well, allowing for more ball retention and fluidity in the second-half.
Low’s altering of the shape allowed Germany to create more chances and trouble England that little bit more, with Podolski filling in slightly deeper and Brandt, along with Schurlle when he was introduced, and Sane pushed higher up field. This allowed Germany to find more space between the lines and England’s overall fluency in the play was interrupted, largely due to the amount of substitutions as well.
On the whole, it was a satisfying night as an England supporter and Southgate should certainly take heart from what was an impressive display from his men, spoiled only by a fairytale moment. The manager should look to find continuity in the 3-4-3 system with a few alterations in terms of personnel against Lithuania.
Although neither match provided the desired result, England’s performances against Spain and Germany in the most recent friendlies have certainly suggested that Southgate can get this side producing exciting, attractive football.