WEMBLEY, LONDON—Before a satisfied Joachim Low left his post-match press conference following Germany’s friendly victory on Tuesday evening, an engagement he had conducted entirely in German, he offered a few words in near-perfect English.
Low thanked the Football Association for inviting his country to play at Wembley, and for the hospitality afforded to them during their stay. “We will see you at the World Cup!” he concluded.
It was meant (and delivered) as a cheery signing-off note between friends, yet England fans may be forgiven for reading it almost as a warning.
Edged in almost every department by a weakened Germany team on the night—another defeat to the old enemy to add to a one-sided list—there can be little Roy Hodgson will be wanting less than to meet them again in Brazil next summer, four years on from the 4-1 knockout defeat in South Africa that sent England into the self-hating and self-doubting spiral it is still trying to escape from.
Little should be read into friendlies, certainly far less than some of the newspapers will doubtless devote on Wednesday. This match, the penultimate game before both coaches name their provisional World Cup squads in more than six months’ time, was a crucial chance to assess personnel options and tactical variations, not a "must-win" encounter.
Hence starts for Tom Cleverley, Adam Lallana, Roman Weidenfeller and Max Kruse, to single out just four.
“I wanted to do some experimentation with players, Jogi [Low] did too,” Hodgson noted afterwards. “I certainly learned a lot from the match. You would have to ask him to find out if he did too.”
It seems Low did, although his concerns appeared to be as much about the implementation of tactical concepts as the auditions of fringe players.
"When we approach the World Cup there are several issues that will need detailed and extensive work," he said, somewhat ominous considering the victory his side had just delivered against a side with trophy-winning aspirations (however optimistic) of their own.
“We can be satisfied with the way the team are pressing, we created overloads in midfield. The final third remains a problem, we need to exploit our chances better.
“There is only one preparation game now. We know what the sticking points are and we will see to them.”
While Low spoke at length with the press afterward—keeping his opposite number waiting in the wings, in fact—Hodgson was far more concise. He spent seven-and-a-half minutes with the written press, according to the times on many reporters’ dictaphones; hardly long enough to discuss his team’s failings in any real depth.
Instead, he faced facile, loaded questions about “being beaten by a weakened Germany team” and how “central defence had become a problem area” for him. Hodgson quite justifiably pointed out that his team was similarly depleted, although he resisted asserting that, after a qualifying campaign where Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka were a relatively constant presence the back, giving those two and de facto back-ups Phil Jones and Chris Smalling experience of playing in different combinations (in case injuries derail Plan A or B) actually made sense.
“I don’t think you should be discussing at the moment what is my first-choice squad,” Hodgson responded to one question.
“We’ll see how many of those player play in the Germany team come Brazil,” he added to another. “They do have a strong team, I think it will be unfair, personally, to suggest that was a weak German team.”
Forced onto the defensive to defend a result that does not matter in any meaningful way, quickly the chance was gone to discuss what, if anything, Hodgson had learned from England’s first two back-to-back home defeats since 1977.
Is it the fault of the reporters, for trying to sensationalise everything, or at least reduce matches to simple terms? Or is it the Football Association’s, for limiting the time Hodgson spends with them (yes, Low overran, but Hodgson did not speak for more than 10 minutes after the games against Chile and Germany) and thus heightening the need for every question to provoke a usable response?
Hodgson’s thoughts on resolving England’s difficulties executing a coherent pressing game, or when he will now favour the 4-3-3 (used against Chile) over the 4-2-3-1 (employed in the qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland, and again against Germany), would all be more useful to know.
Working out how he might ensure England can reproduce the attacking vigour they displayed against Montenegro and Poland in meetings with the superior defences they will face at a World Cup (Germany’s being a taste), seems to be a key task now facing Hodgson. But we know little of how he might attack that particular quandary.
Instead, we learned only the obvious elements of what Hodgson gleaned from the 90 minutes. Adam Lallana, in and out of the game but productive when involved, was on “the list” of positives of the international break.
Joe Hart had a good game.
Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard were withdrawn early due to slight injuries. England were not very incisive in the final third.
All things we could see, or at least deduce with a little observation.
“I’m not disappointed in the players’ efforts and dedication,” Hodgson started. “For long periods it was an even game. But where the Germans were clearly better than us was in their passing … and in and around the final third.
“We can do better that and we know that.”
Low, too, was critical of his side’s efforts in the final third—perhaps aware that his side, despite being superior over the course of the contest, had only actually won thanks to a headed goal from the tallest player on the pitch.
“If you compare this with other friendlies, we can be satisfied with the way the team are pressing, we created overloads in midfield,” Low noted. “The final third remains a problem, we need to exploit our chances better.
"When we approach the World Cup there are several issues that will needed detailed and extensive work.”
That will not be of much consolation to the team that his side had just beaten—and while they were shorn of the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil with it.
“We managed to compensate for the loss of big players for the time being, but we will definitely need them fit in 2014,” Low warned.
For the fans, defeat makes it easy to dwell on the flaws. But it is not a jaw-dropping surprise to learn the side remain some way adrift of Germany.
Germany are not celebrating this win, aware that it is victories next summer that will matter. Similarly, defeats for England at this point mean little—as long they learn from them and are better when they suddenly mean everything.
“It’s been a great year because we qualified for the World Cup,” Hodgson stressed. “It’s a year in which we’ve achieved our goal. We’ve got an awful lot to look forward to.”
And an awful lot of work still to do.