England 2 Germany 0
History hung all over this match, however fervently the England players had denied it beforehand. England’s 2-0 win laid the ghosts of all those past defeats by Germany — in 1970, 1990, 1996 and 2010. Everyone at Wembley felt it, presumably including England’s manager Gareth Southgate, whose missed penalty at the London stadium in 1996 had sent England out.
In the closing minutes on Tuesday, with England two goals up, the 40,000 allowed into Wembley broke into “Three Lions”, the anthem of England’s “30 years of hurt” — most of it inflicted by Germany.
This was the first knockout game England had won at the European championship without the aid of a penalty shootout since 1968. But this is a new kind of England team, matured by their run to the World Cup semi-final in 2018, more professional, more organised and more nerveless than their predecessors.
Football is a game of mistakes and a team that makes as few of them as England did on this evening will generally win.
Hardly a pass was misplaced, there were almost no blind hoofed clearances, and the positioning was expert, with England’s wide players cutting off supply lines to Germany’s feared wing-backs. Jordan Pickford was flawless in goal. The cliché after big England games is that they “fought like lions”, but on Tuesday they operated more as if computer-controlled. After four games, they have yet to concede a goal.
It wasn’t entertaining. The cautious Southgate fielded three central defenders even though Germany played for most of the match with only one advanced striker, Timo Werner. That left England overstaffed at the back and undermanned in midfield. With no great passer in the team, advances were laborious and rarely surprised the Germans.
No doubt this helps explain why England’s captain Harry Kane — deadly for Tottenham Hotspur this season — spent most of the game prolonging his agonising Euro 2020. Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka were much brighter, but for some periods England achieved the unlikely feat of quietening Wembley during a knockout game against Germany.
In the ancient tradition of England disregarding its creative players, several of them had started on the bench, but so little was being generated that on 68 minutes Jack Grealish was sent on for Saka. Kane was allowed to stay out, apparently in deference to his seniority. Seven minutes later, the switch paid off. Sterling started a move that went through Kane and Grealish out to Luke Shaw, who put in a low cross that Sterling tapped home from six yards, his and England’s third goal of the tournament.
Until that moment Kane had been so poor that it was starting to look like a case of identity theft. Perhaps he had been weighed down by the stress of being England’s biggest name facing ritual elimination by Germany, because after the first goal he came to life, moving much more and passing sweetly. Four minutes from time he got his redemption: Shaw intercepted in midfield and fed Grealish, who hit a cross at an awkward height that Kane stooped to head home.
This ageing Germany team — with their coach, Joachim Löw, bowing out after 15 years, and four world champions from 2014 on the field — has reached its end. Afterwards, England’s players stayed on the pitch as the fans produced the liveliest atmosphere most people will have experienced since the pandemic began. “I just thought it was a brilliant afternoon,” Southgate told the BBC.
Centre back Harry Maguire, named the official “star of the match”, said: “It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone in this country so to put smiles back on faces is to enjoy a great moment.”
England now find themselves in the easier half of the draw, heading for a quarter-final in Rome on Saturday, with Kane possibly released from his demons and with the semis and final on home turf at Wembley. Anyone unacquainted with those “30 years of hurt” (which have since ticked up to 55) might be tempted to ask: what could possibly go wrong?