It is one of international football’s oldest rivalries, but England manager Gareth Southgate did not hide his admiration for the Germany side – not just their players but their processes – in his pre-match press conference at St George’s Park this morning.
Southgate, as a former Under-21 manager, has always been preoccupied with youth development, and providing the best pathway to get young players into the senior side.
Now he has the top job he wants to open that pathway up, which explains his ruthless squad selection for this month’s games against Germany and Brazil. And he knows that no-one does youth to senior pathways better than tomorrow night’s opponents, as they showed in their youthful squad selections for two major tournaments earlier this summer.
“This period from qualification to the finals has to be one with an element of experimentation,” Southgate said of his youthful selection.
“If we don’t try things in these games, when are we going to try things? When are we going to learn about some of these guys? Not just for Russia, beyond the World Cup as well.” To that end, Ruben Loftus-Cheek will start tomorrow night, as will Jack Butland and Marcus Rashford. The England team that faces Brazil will be even younger.
It is slightly reminiscent of the Germany squad that went to the Confederations Cup in Russia this June. Shorn of all their older players, the most experienced man was 30-cap 23-year-old Julian Draxler. Only two players – Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner – were born in the 1980s.
“Germany took a really young to the Confederations Cup, I thought it was brilliant what they did,” Southgate said.
“They took a younger team to the U21 European Championships and a younger team to the Confeds, and that’s how they work. They are brave enough to take decisions that might get result or might not. They are constantly improving and evolving as a team. In my view that’s what we have to do.”
The DFB has been working like this for years, and they have plenty to show for it. Not least the 2014 World Cup, a direct consequence of winning the European Under-21 Championship back in 2009. Southgate was asked how England measure up to Germany, and could only admit that this country is a long way behind.
“We’re not at the same stage, because Germany’s plan has been in place for a lot longer and they are already world champions,” Southgate said.
“We have been further behind as a country. This [St George’s Park] was only built five years ago, the work with the younger teams, the new work, only started in the last three or four years. But you can see the progress that is being made. For that to translate into the senior team, in terms of success on the pitch, might take some time.”
After this year’s successes from England under-17s and under-19s, the challenge for Southgate is to move those players steadily up through the system while not compromising England’s qualification for major tournaments.
“We’ve got to introduce these young players at the right time, when we think they’re ready, when we think they can do themselves justice,” Southgate said. “But also, in the last few months, we’ve also had to qualify for the World Cup as well, so we have to get the balance right.”
So it will be two young teams facing up at Wembley tomorrow night and Southgate knows that the real prize will not be decided just before 10pm at Friday or even in Russia next summer, but in the years and tournaments beyond that.
“We don’t have a huge amount of senior players in the squad, we only have two or three players in the squad over 30,” he said.
“So you’re looking at who might be good enough in the years to come, what’s the potential, what might the team look like. I’d rather invest our time in players like John Stones, who we believe can be at the very top, give them their opportunity, and build as a team. In the long term England will benefit and that is what we have to look at.”