England face Germany in a friendly this evening that Gareth Southgate can’t really win. Lose to the old enemy and the FA’s decision to give him the Three Lions job permanently will immediately come under intense scrutiny, not to mention the contradicting successes of both countries’ youth development strategies. Win, and Southgate will become an inevitable victim of his own successes by the time the 2018 World Cup in Russia draws to a close.
This time last year, in the buildup to Euro 2016, England made the same trip to Germany and unexpectedly came home with a 3-2 victory. Eric Dier and Jamie Vardy became overnight heroes and Roy Hodgson’s increasing faith in the new generation breaking through was justified. Suddenly, as the tournament in France approached, confidence in a side that had struggled to gain support during a perfect qualification campaign drastically swelled.
Countless theories developed as to why England’s new blood could take the continent by storm; the idea of the young players being spared of the mental scars of continued failing at major tournaments producing a kind of ignorant bravery; the sheer depth and variety of Hodgson’s squad giving him enough options to tailor England’s starting XI around any given opponent; the fact so many players, not least including Vardy, Dele Alli and Eric Dier, had finished the season in such strong form.
But a few months later, England were brought crashing down to earth by one of the most humiliating results in their history – that painstakingly unforgettable 2-1 defeat to Iceland, which witnessed some of the Premier League’s highest-paid stars look like non-league paupers lost in the limelight of the international stage.
Yet, as Gabriele Marcotti so excellently describes, that is the vicious cycle England can’t seem to escape. Resoundingly hyperbolic negativity until a positive result against a half-decent team catalyses a swing to the exact opposite end of the spectrum. England supporters are a bi-polar fan base, ready to kiss one cheek and draw blood from the other, loving and hating in equal measure with no interest in finding a more stable and realistic middle ground.
Indeed, no matter what happens in Dortmund tonight, the consequence will be an overreaction. Losing will maintain the underlying status quo of cynicism, winning will raise expectations to an unsustainable level and drawing will revive the age-old criticism of either boring football or bottle-jobbery.
Amid an era of increasingly dull international friendlies, they don’t get much better or more competitive than England vs Germany. So rather than analysing the result by putting it into the context of England’s long and largely underwhelming football history, rather than feeling compelled to react in a way that continues the push around the never-ending vicious cycle, can Three Lions fans not just sit back tonight and enjoy ninety minutes of football?