The constant jibe thrown at Gareth Southgate has been that he can’t beat the big teams, but in recent history, no England manager has recorded a win over a footballing powerhouse when it really matters. Stuart Pearce, though, is backing this England side to change that record when they face Germany on Tuesday in the round of 16 at Euro 2020.
“I think we'll end up winning the game, I really do. I don't think this is the strongest German side I've seen but are a side that has got to be respected,” the former England left-back tells The Sportsman.
Before the 2018 World Cup, England had won just two knockout games at major tournaments this century. Two. A 1-0 win over Ecuador in 2006 and a 3-0 victory against Denmark in 2002, both in the round of 16, but it is their record against the major nations that needs rectifying.
Including the most recent World Cup, the Three Lions haven’t beaten a major side in a knockout game of a major tournament since Spain in 1996, and even that was on penalties. Now, the four-time World Cup winners, and the side that broke English hearts in 1990 and 1996, lie in wait.
“When you look at Germany, they are elite winners at international level, make no mistake about that,” Pearce says, having been in charge of an England under-21 side who lost the Euro 2009 final 4-0 to the Germans.
“They win at the younger age group and they also win at senior level. You know when you take on the Germans they are probably going to have some real world class players in their ranks.
"In the two tournaments that I played against them, they had some top class players in their ranks. When you look at them now, same again, they've got players playing at top clubs all over Europe.”
Italia 90, Euro 96 and Frank Lampard’s ghost goal in 2010 have meant that on too many occasions England have been on the wrong side of this famous match-up. However, despite the rivalry, Pearce feels there is more that connects the two nations, than separates them.
“We are very similar as well as nations in some ways, the English and the Germans, in regards to our love of football and the euphoria that fans bring to stadiums and that is what makes it special,” Pearce explains, remembering two of the biggest occasions of his career.
“The fact is that the only time we ever won a trophy has been against the Germans and the good thing is we are on home soil again. Two tournaments on home soil have seen us lift a trophy and get beaten in the semi-final. That is quite powerful. I think the side knows that they've generated a little bit of euphoria.
“The important thing for me is after the [Czech Republic] game, someone said ‘who would you rather play in this round?’ I said, If I can guarantee us winning the game, beating the Germans will psychologically give us such a boost and a lift that I think it might sweep us all the way to the final and the trophy.”
However, it won’t be easy as Germany have a squad packed with talent. Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Antonio Rudiger are currently European champions with Chelsea, while Toni Kroos has been one of the world’s finest midfielders for over a decade. Germany scored four past Portugal in the group stage with their attacking wing-backs, so how do England get past their old rivals?
“It'll be a tight affair,” Pearce accepts. “Anyone who thinks it won't be hasn't probably watched football over many years. It'll be a really tight affair, it wouldn't surprise me if it went to extra-time. I think we have got the athleticism to cause them a problem.
“As long as Gareth gets the formula right, and I think he has done that very well in his team selection so far this tournament, and players rise to the challenge that is Germany, then there is nothing to suggest with the players and their mentality that the game will be too much for them in any way, shape or form. They've been brilliant in all the games for a few years together.”
Tactically, this will be a big test for Southgate, who could be tempted to deploy wing-backs as he did in 2018 in order to counteract the German offensive. “I think they'd have talked through that scenario and maybe even worked on that scenario on the training pitch. But I'm not seeing him change to a three, I think he will start with a four and try to impose our game on them, but time will tell.”
After an impressive first-half performance against the Czech Republic, in which 19-year-old Bukayo Saka shone in place of the absent Phil Foden, Pearce says he would be tempted to stick with the fearless youngster, but feels those off the bench could make a huge impact.
“The boys who started the game last time out have done very, very little to rule themselves out. I thought Saka was arguably our best player, Grealish played well in the game, showed good arrogance on the ball. I think it would be very difficult for Gareth to change the team, if he does it will be at most one player.
“I wouldn't change the starting line-up,” he continues. “The only question mark he might have is maybe Phil Foden but I'm not sure he'll make that call. I think Saka played extremely well and he trusts Raheem Sterling in those wide areas so that'd be the starting line-up. As I've said before many times, in modern day football with five substitutes the starting line-up is important but not critical.”
At left-back, the position Pearce knows better than anybody else, the manager must make another big decision as Kieran Trippier performed well against Croatia and has proved he has the ability to handle big international occasions under Southgate.
“I would probably just err on the more natural left-sided player and play with Luke Shaw. Both of them have played well, I thought Trippier played the left-back role really well in the first game but I think Shaw gives you a bit more natural balance.”
However, for fellow left-back Ben Chilwell and Mason Mount, the build-up has not been so simple. Both were forced to isolate and train alone until Monday despite having a negative Covid-19 test, ruling them out of contention as far as Pearce is concerned.
“We've had a long build-up and in all that time we are talking about both Chilwell and Mount not joining in potentially until Monday. For a game of this magnitude, you couldn't consider them because they wouldn't have worked with the group in the build-up, so I would draw a line under those two and not play them.”
England’s captain Harry Kane is yet to score at Euro 2020 despite winning the Golden Boot three years ago, but Pearce is once again backing him to perform in the big games and fire the Three Lions to a win against Germany.
“I think we'll win 2-1,” he ends. “Kane’s not had too many efforts in and around the box but the thing is, when you play the better sides, he will be freed up to have a bit more space within the game and I think it just might suit him. He is a big-game player and a top quality international. If you are going to announce yourself in a tournament, do it against Germany for us.”