Gareth Southgate’s young England side gave the world champions plenty to think about and with more experience the boys have potential to go on to better things
The kids are – sort of – all right. At times, perhaps even a little better than all right. Gareth Southgate has often been portrayed as a strikingly beige figure in his short England reign, an FA insider bringing with him all the chin-stroking touchline charisma of a friendly, doomed supply teacher who really hopes everyone will stop talking and listen to him discuss sedimentary rock patterns if he just stands here and frowns for a bit longer.
This, though, was a good moment for Southgate, and a bold one too. On a crisp, fun night at Wembley his enforced gamble was a success. The selection of the most inexperienced England team in 40 years to take on the world champions could have ended in disaster. Make no mistake, his was in its own way an astonishing selection. In Ruben Loftus-Cheek England had a No10 who has only ever started two league matches that his team has ended up winning. Both of them, oddly enough, against Aston Villa. England’s main creative thrust here, their pivot, their rainmaker came to Wembley with one league goal to his name.
In front of him Tammy Abraham and Jamie Vardy made up a piecemeal, oddly engaging front three. Vardy was playing for Stockbridge Park Steels the same year Abraham joined Chelsea’s youth set up aged eight. Abraham has played just 13 Premier league games. He still looks like a teenager, skinny legs flapping gamely as he chased and harried in the opening seconds.
He made a terrible start too. As opening acts of your international debut go, missing an open goal from five metres out is probably not what you’d hope to get in the sweepstake. It really was on a plate for Abraham too. Vardy made a fine sniping run down the left, cut inside, looked up and put a perfect low cross between two defenders. The pass was a gift. Abraham air-kicked with the goal gaping.
But more importantly he didn’t stop, kept going, chased every pass, tried constantly to link with Vardy again. And this was the tenor of England’s youthful attack in an engaging first half. Loftus-Cheek and Abraham may or may not go on to have long international careers. The future remains entirely open. But they will always have a first half here where neither froze or stopped or felt the weight of the opposition.
Loftus-Cheek, in particular was a fascinating presence. He may have touched the ball in the opening nine minutes. But if so only briefly in between shuttling around calling for a pass and failing to get one. His first signifiant involvement saw him essay an ambitious dinked pass that bounced put of play over the goal line.
After which Loftus-Cheek, right, did OK, for a man with pretty much zero experience of starting a game at this level and on this stage. He was described, a little ominously, as both “shy”and “calm” by his club and country managers before this game. But he showed a ballsiness here in snapping up the No10 shirt on his debut – and playing like one too, lurking in that in-between space, calling for the ball, making himself available for a pass every time. And, it must be said, not really getting one. Repeatedly in the first half Loftus-Cheek might have been given the ball making each time the same imploring gesture with his hands. England just didn’t seem to see him, or feel his magnetism on the pitch. But then this is not a team that generally plays with a No10, that feeds the ball through a playmaker automatically the way Germany do with Mesut Özil
The contrast was striking at times. Every time Germany had the ball Özil would get a touch, acting as a resting place, a muster point, and then the man to finally play the forward pass. With Loftus-Cheek it all seemed more difficult, more cramped. Germany know how to move the ball with this kind of player in the team. England’s strikers both dropped deep at times, closing the space, driving Loftus-Cheek out to the left.
Loftus-Cheek does have has some very distinct attributes, famed for his “power runs” in possession, the surge past or through a tight defence, like a flank-forward bursting into open field. He had his moment at the end of the first half, galloping through the middle, finding a huge empty space inside the area but just failing to collect the ball as if it was fizzed into his feet. And really, it is perhaps this viciousness he seems to lack in that role, the feeling that here is a player who will kill you if you give him any space, any time. Unsurprisingly perhaps at this level. For all the froth about England’s usually young team Germany had more players on the pitch at the start under the age of 23.
Albeit, by way of contrast Timo Werner has 135 Bundesliga appearances, Josh Kimmich has played 61 times for Bayern Munich and Leroy Sané is, so far this season, the best young player in England. And for all the positives here it is Germany’s more seasoned youth, a high class, three man front-line that skipped in and out of the gears with a compelling ease at times, who will expect to end up in Russia next summer.Read more at theguardian.com