T he 'India v Pakistan' of football rivalries. Plenty of military history, culturally at complete loggerheads and a totally one sided sporting rivalry. How else but to describe England against Germany... an encounter that every generation in England has their own tragic yet heroic war story to tell, only for it to be yet another mere footnote in history for our German counterparts.
This time however it promises to be different. It has to be different. Okay who am I kidding, it looks like we are destined for heartbreak again. At least in England's defence, unlike Pakistan - they do put up a helluva fight and very rarely do they lose by a large margin in competitive fixtures, 2010 being an exception. In front of a home crowd at Wembley, it promises to be another nail-biting fixture and below I will set out the key tactical ploys and battles that will decide the fixture on Tuesday evening.
Much has been spoken of Harry Maguire's return and influence in possession - the hype is real. He made more progressive passes against the Czech Republic than any of John Stones performances so far and more passes into the final third than all of Stones' performances put together. Perhaps more concerning for England, he is more influential and progressive in possession than Declan Rice or Kalvin Phillips - the supposed conduits between defence and midfield.
If Germany wish to prevent England from playing out successfully, they must deploy the high press and ensure that Maguire is cut off in terms of the first pass from the goalkeeper and put the heat on Rice and Phillips - who will struggle to demonstrate the press resistance necessary to turn their men and play the ball forward. With a PPDA of 8.97, Germany are ranked 3rd in terms of their press aggression/effectiveness and England must be fearful and adapt accordingly.
One solution is to Put in more technically gifted players in the midfield, such as Mount or Bellingham. It is highly unlikely that Southgate will try this as he is wedded to the idea of two screeners in front of the defence. He does not trust Bellingham just yet and he has not used Mount in midfield since the 4-0 win over Iceland - arguably the most fluent performance of his tenure - which was in a 3-4-2-1 set up.
The more likelier solution is to go with 5 at the back. With 7 players in the defensive third, rather than 6 - England will have more passing options in the deeper areas and will in theory be able to circulate the ball more safely and have greater protection in place should they lose the ball. The concern remains however that England will still be heavily reliant on Maguire here for progression if Gareth's midfield selection remains conservative.
Another issue that England face with their progression and which will be especially prevalent if they go 4 at the back is the tendency for Walker and Shaw to pass back when pressed. They very rarely use their weak foot to pass back into the midfield when forced backwards, which means it ends up going back to Pickford who is then forced to go long. With Gosens and Kimmich bound to be pushed up as high as possible, this is a red flag for the English.
German Press > English Build Up - but a bold back 5 system with an adventurous midfield selection could give the English a better chance.
It seems fairly likely that regardless of which system England field, Kane and Sterling will start. Rumours seem to indicate that Foden will be brought back into the fold. With Mount likely to start if he is available, that means Foden will be deployed out wide in the right side. Grealish and Saka are likely to miss out. But they may still impact the game off the bench so let us assess how the German's will react with or without them.
The German back three has been Ginter, Hummels and Rudiger. Ginter has been suspect throughout the tournament. He struggled against Mbappe - understandably - but he also struggled in the Hungary game, tentatively reacting to a second ball and vacating the space which allowed Hungary to grab their second goal. In terms of defensive duels won during the Euro's he is averaging 62% - compare that to 81% for Hummels and it is clear that it is he that should be targeted.
Sterling and Mount will most likely team up again down the left half space and left wing, in combination with Luke Shaw. They have the dynamism and interplay down this left flank to give Kimmich, Ginter and Gundogan problems. It is not the most athletic and nimble trio from a defensive perspective for Germany. If Sule and Goretzka start, then this battle begins to look different and the German's would have the physical edge here.
In a 3-4-3, unless Ben Chilwell is starting - if there is no Mount or Grealish in the side, it is difficult to see how a Trippier and Sterling combination is going to harm Germany down their right side. A third man run in this area is vital. England must ensure that in their desire to protect the defence, they do not totally kill off any forms of combinations in possession. On the English right however it is a different story with a back 5 (see below).
One of England's biggest weaknesses has been the lack of enterprise down the right. With Foden cutting in, there has been zero overlapping presence. It is very reminiscent to Italy's problem with Berardi. We saw how the Italians came alive with Chiesa down the right and England similarly came alive with Saka. Both these players can play in front of a defensive full back and still make something happen out of nothing because of their ability to drive with the ball down the line and beat anyone 1 v 1.
If England did go back 3 and we had Foden and Mount in the midfield, look at how many options we suddenly have in possession and in the half spaces. The full backs can hold the width and let these lads focus on dominating the middle of the pitch. This will really challenge the likes of Kroos from a defensive perspective. If we go with Rice and Phillips in front of the back 5, then England do not look anywhere near as dangerous in the half space.
If Saka did play, it would really give the Germans a problem should Gosens be caught up the pitch. If he doesn't, Foden could still be a problem but he will likely run into Rudiger rather than take him down the line and stretch the German back three. Having said that, some of his runs into space have gone unrewarded and seeing as he is keen to make his mark on this tournament, the scene could be set for a Foden masterclass especially if England pick James and go 3-4-3. He will overlap and free up Foden.
Centrally, the big talking point is Harry Kane. I have not held back on my criticism of him. He is someone whose lack of elite level dynamism hurts England when they're struggling to get up the pitch and against top quality defenders - he tends to get pocketed. Having said that, this is a defence which is gettable. It is a defence that has lacked protection and in Hummels he faces an individual who is similar to him physically. He did look sharper against the Czechs... will he finally prove he is 'world-class'?
The English threat has not caught fire yet because of Southgate. Having said that the Germans are very loose defensively, so I prefer England here.
This is a critical phase for England. The Germans play a kamikaze high line and one can imagine a long ball finding Sterling or Foden who pull out wide and bring it down with an immaculate first touch. The question mark is whether either of the two have that clinicality which you associate with the best counter-attacking sides. Kane is the man who you can rely on in the finish, but these days he is usually feeding the passes and watching people run in behind rather than stretch the lines himself.
Germany need to start Goretzka. Without his box to box presence, their defending of transitions is poor. Kroos and Gundogan amble back and by the time they stretch their legs, the opposition has already got in on goal. England's starting lineup, even if it is flawed will still possess players who can break quickly in Mount, Foden and Sterling. Off the bench, Rashford, Grealing and Saka are players who can be devastating on the counter - so the German's need to reinforce the midfield and protect against transitions.
Hungary used their wing backs well on the counter. France also unleashed their defensive wing backs now and again to devastating effect... their goal was created by the penetrating runs of Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. Southgate would be advised to select the right personnel at full back, especially if he goes with 3 at the back. Having guys like Tripper and Walker as your attacking 'wing-backs' is not going to cut it.
Sterling, Foden and Kane does not scream transitional perfection, but their subs are lethal on counter.
The Germans are the most front foot side in the competition other than Spain and perhaps Italy. They really do take their 3-4-3 structure seriously. The wide centre backs are expected to progress the play from their stations, pushed high close to the halfway line. The central midfielders and the wing back almost operate as a diamond, with Kroos at times offering an option as a pivot if need be and the wing backs act as wingers, uninterested in the progression and holding their position to pin the opposition back.
With a minimum of nearly 60% possession in every game they have featured in during these championships it is fair to say the Germans do not have any issues with progressing the game from the back. But upon closer inspection, they have faced three teams who refuse to deploy the high press and wait until the ball reaches the half way line before engaging. Perhaps England could do what the Czechs did to the Dutch and disrupt their rhythm by going for the jugular?
With a PPDA of close to 14, it is unlikely England will commit to a consistent high press. Nevertheless it is worth deploying now and again to keep the Germans honest. In the second half, if the younger legs are brought on - England have players who really could make it difficult for the Germans to play out. By winning the ball high up the pitch, England can swiftly mount a counter attack.
One particular structure that could really work for England is a 3-5-2, similar to what they used in the 2018 World Cup. It would be bold and proactive but it would ensure nearly every German is marked 1 v 1 and they will find it much harder in 1 v 1 situations as there are not many dribblers in their defensive third who can beat a man. They tend to rely more on intelligent combinations in possession to find the spare man, so England need to press and cut off these passing lanes.
Germany are simply one of the best possession controlling sides in the game but England in a 3-5-2 structure could inflict some damage.
Havertz, Muller and Gnabry are the favoured front three of Low. They struggled to penetrate France, destroyed Portugal and in the game against Hungary, Muller was rested but brought on in the second half (with a new set of partners up top). Gnabry and Havertz struggled to make inroads into the Hungary defence, so overall we have a picture of an attack which can be kept quiet but can also run riot once things go its way.
Therefore not conceding early will be important for England. The longer you frustrate the Germans, the more likelier they are to misfire. In terms of match ups, the only slight concern for England would be Muller who could 'outsmart' Walker in and around the left half space or inside the box. He is the joker in the pack for that German front line. Havertz is a huge threat but he will be operating in the region of Shaw and Maguire... I can see him getting the better of them at times but I cannot see him totally destroying them.
Gosens is integral to the German attack as he is the only player who hugs the touchline and stretches the opposition. In a back 5, England would probably nullify this threat but in a back 4, Walker could find himself in trouble if he switches off (although he is more accomplished defensively than any of the Portuguese offerings in this respect). Overall I am backing England to deal with him.
Kimmich has a tendency to drift in and his ability to go down the line 1 v 1 is below par. However if he does receive the ball in the final third and holds the width, his crossing is devastating. It is very important that England show him inside and tempt him into playing as a midfielder. They must close down his crosses as he truly is sensational in this respect and will pick a man out with ease. What Hungary did well was force him to pass back to Ginter, who was just brainlessly hitting long hopeful passes into the centre.
Another secret weapon for the Germans is Goretzka. In and around the box, he has a real smell for goal and if the English midfield is not switched on to his movements or give him room to shoot - it will be game over. Kroos and Gundogan can score goals too but they focus too much on ball circulation to be taken as serious goal threats in the opening stages... Goretzka is far more aggressive.
Germany have not impressed in attack outside of the Portugal game. England have looked pretty resolute, with 3 clean sheets.
With the vision of players like Kroos and Kimmich, England must be wary of defence being turned into defence in an instant. Quick switches of play out to the full backs will also be an avenue for Germany to break forward with pace. Ultimately however the German's are not a side which seeks to dominate the transitions as they tend to dominate the ball so often, their opponents end up being pinned into a low block.
Should the Germans go into an early lead and England throw the kitchen sink in front of a baying home crowd... they can bring on players like Werner and Sane, who will definitely cause some havoc on the counter. It is rare that Low utilises this as a tactic but the option is there should he wish to utilise it.
England tend to defend transitions relatively well. They are not a team which wholeheartedly commits to attack and their full backs are defensive in nature and positionally sound. Whilst Maguire lacks pace, he is surrounded by enough dynamism for it not to really be an issue. In a Southgate back 5, it is even more difficult to envisage England being done on the counter attack. Furthermore England's midfielders are defensively disciplined and will always seek to get back to defend.
Difficult to see how England get caught out on the counter. Gnabry apart, that German attack lacks top tier pace but their subs could change everything and do not underestimate their wing backs.
Hummels v Kane
If Kane was facing a Varane/Kimpembe pairing, I would struggle to see him making any impact. Hummels is more suspect despite having a great football IQ. Similar to Kane, he has his physical deficiencies and this uber-attacking system of Germany can mean he has far too much to do. If England push enough bodies forward in transition, he may have too many fires to fight and that could leave Kane open. An intriguing encounter and Kane's best shot of scoring in a big game.
Gosens v Walker
Gosens had it easy against Portugal playing against Semedo. Kyle Walker is a completely different prospect and on paper you would think the Englishman has the edge. But this is not just about England defending, can Walker go forward if he is in a back 4 and hurt Germany? No. His ability to cross the ball is poor and he seems to have lost the ability to drive forward and be a threat in his own right. I predict a stalemate on this flank.
Goretzka and Kroos v English Midfield
This is a battle which you would expect the Germans to dominate with ease. I cannot see the English controlling the game, so it will be more about sitting tight and looking to break on Germany. Mount is such a key figure for England. He is the man the Germans will fear because he can break and get in behind them... how Goretzka deals with this could determine the tie. If Mount has a quiet game, I find it hard to see England winning.
England: Pickford, Trippier, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw, Rice, Foden, Mount, Sterling, Kane
Germany: Neuer, Kimmich, Ginter, Hummels, Rudiger, Gosens, Kroos, Goretzka, Havertz, Muller, Gnabry.
England very rarely get blown away in these big knockout games. They tend to be dogged, well-organised but also invite the opposition on to them due to that classic English weakness of failing to play out of the press. I expect the Germans to dominate and control large swathes of the game.
What this English side does have is a plethora of options off the bench. A desperate Southgate with the crowd on his back could be forced to unleash some talent and this could be problematic for the Germans who do not really know how to defend with a degree of certainty. Saka, Grealish, Sancho, Rashford or Lewin - these are players who if the game is 1-0, can grab a late equaliser and if they are on the pitch going into extra time.. suddenly the English look a threat.
Very difficult to predict this game because if it was based on just their squads - England have the edge for me. I genuinely believe it is a golden generation of players and even a manager like Southgate may end up picking a lineup on the day that we are all content with and can hurt the Germans. Yet there is that tendency for him to put out a side which is just a bunch of his favourites which is likely to be outplayed.
On the other hand the Germans have a fixed system and established patterns of play for better or for worse. They know they have flaws but play inspite of that - focusing on what they can do, rather than what they cannot do. We have seen that sides like Italy and Netherlands struggled with imposing their game when an opponent came out to press high and drop deep in equal measure. England are capable of this if Southgate allows them to.
Just to cover all bases, if Grealish starts ahead of Mount - England will go 4-2-3-1 and times it would be a 4-2-2-2. I cannot envisage Southgate going with Grealish and Foden in the same side, but if he does... that space in behind Kroos and the half spaces in general will be rife with activity. Defensive England may be suspect with 3 of out the front 4 unlikely to track back with vigour but England would look dangerous in possession and will have sustained periods of possession in patches.
Prediction - Another tight encounter which could go either way. If England go with a back 5, they have a really good chance of winning this game but it is imperative we do not pick Rice and Phillips for the full 90 minutes. If they go with a back 4, they still can compete but it becomes harder for them to impose their own game and it will rely on transitions. Will make a final prediction once the lineups are announced... slightly leaning towards the Germans as Southgate tends not to pick the right lineups but we shall see.