When Gareth Southgate’s England side were battered and bruised against the ropes, their nose bloodied with the crowd baying for blood at Wembley - they came back swinging. From 2-0 down, the Three Lions roared back into a 3-2 to end their goalscoring drought, before a late Kai Havertz goal robbed them of a famous win.
In the summer of 2021, England had one of their most famous nights at the new Wembley. Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane got on the scoresheet under the arch as the Three Lions roared past Germany into the last eight of the Euros.
A lot has changed since then. The positivity from that tournament slowly drained away over this Nations League campaign that ultimately ended in relegation, but on a thrilling night at Wembley, the joy and belief returned.
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It was monumental for England, but even more so for the man in the dugout. Gareth Southgate has been slandered from pillar to post over the last few months but it was his two substitutes, Mason Mount and Bukayo Saka that made a key difference in the match.
At 2-0 down, after Harry Maguire gave away a penalty that Ilkay Gundogan, it felt like the misery that has engulfed this England side over the last six months would overflow at Wembley. But this Southgate side dragged them back into contention, even when they looked like they like they were about to get another pummelling.
Jude Bellingham was exceptional again and has nailed down a starting spot in Qatar. It was the young 19-year-old that refused to play safe, and dragged England forward. He drove past a German player and found Reece James. The Chelsea man then played a one-two with Saka before crossing into the box, where Luke Shaw was waiting to fire home.
After 72 shots in a row without scoring and a lifetime without a goal from open play, this was the goal an entire nation was waiting for. With the Three Lions already relegated, it was an ultimately meaningless game, but Shaw’s goal re-lit the fire in England’s bellies and the players started to believe in themselves again.
Saka left a defender for dead and played the ball to Mason Mount who fired home from the edge of the box with a first-time finish. It felt huge. A man who Southgate has showed so much faith in repaid him with a wonderful goal that changed the feeling around this England side.
The crowd were back on side and more importantly, so were the players. Bellingham and Mount flew into two crunching tackles before Kane saw his effort deflected just wide. Then Bellingham was fouled in the box and after a VAR review, Kane stepped up to whip the ball into the top corner and put England ahead. Wembley erupted with joy and the fairy tale finale was written but as always, it always feels like bad news is only around the corner.
This time, it came in the form of a Nick Pope error as he fumbled one into the path of Havertz who bagged his second of the night from close range. Germany were ruthlessly efficient. Four shots on target, three goals. Jordan Pickford, England needs you back. The balloon had popped on England’s win, but the fight and performance was still there.
Harry Maguire endured a mixed night. At times he was the centre-back of old, winning 50/50 duels, but his night will be remembered for two mistakes that led to two goals. The first saw Jamal Musiala leave him flat-footed in the box as he clumsily brought the Bayern Munich man down, while his second mistake saw him give the ball away in midfield, before Havertz whipped one into the top corner.
But John Stones was solid until he was forced off with an injury and Eric Dier looks at home in the middle of that back three. It seems as though that is the formation that Southgate will go back to, especially now he has seen the pairing of Declan Rice and Bellingham in the middle. England don’t have the defensive quality to play a back four and simply have to sacrifice an attacking player to compensate.
When the Three Lions are full of confidence, they can tear teams apart. In that period where they scored three, Saka, Mount and Kane combined wonderfully and that will excite their manager on the touchline. It was only a draw in the end, but Southgate will be delighted with what he saw tonight.
He simply couldn’t afford another loss and now, his starting XI for the World Cup is almost set in stone.