For all the undeniable quality of Kroos, Real Madrid’s World Cup winner, and Gundogan, the Premier League’s best player in the middle part of last season, they can also be a weakness in this Germany team.
England have been the 21st Century case study in how building a world-class midfield is about more than chucking a group of world-class midfielders into it and letting them work it out for themselves. Germany’s balance has not been right yet.
To the frustration of many supporters, coach Joachim Low has appeared wedded to a 3-4-3 formation at this tournament. It worked spectacularly against Portugal, but backfired in the other two games.
The trouble is that as a central midfield partnership, Kroos and Gundogan lack of bit of dynamism and a bit of bite. France ruthlessly exposed that in the opening game, and Low only rescued the see-saw match against Hungary when wing-back Joshua Kimmich was pulled alongside Kroos in a switch to 3-5-2 and Gundogan was pushed further forward before being replaced by Leon Goretzka, who made a strong case to start against England.
The Three Lions should be hoping Low ignores that and reverts to plan A in the last 16.
Even before the tournament kicked off, Chelsea’s Champions League experience showed how to beat midfields like Germany’s. Their German coach Thomas Tuchel sussed it out.
In the semi-finals, the Blues faced a Real Madrid midfield featuring Kroos and Luka Modric, a similarly brilliant, similar style midfielder. Casemiro was stationed alongside them to provide a bit of ballast, but to no avail as Chelsea’s greater energy won the midfield battle. Kroos later spoke in wonder of the “physical” N’golo Kante.
In the final, it was Pep Guardiola who was out-thought, his decision to dispense with a holding midfielder and restrict Gundogan’s greatest strength – his ability to burst into the box – by surrounding him with Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden was as bad on the grass as it looked on paper. Even geniuses make mistakes.
In each case, Chelsea’s midfield was comprised of Jorginho, a definite anchorman, Kante and Mason Mount, who lies somewhere between orthodox midfielder and No 10 as he was in England’s first two games.
Jorginho plays for Italy, Kante is French and although isolating for nearly a week means Mount is unlikely to be in the right condition to do that job again, England can at least mine his brain.
The problem with copying the Chelsea approach, or France’s against Germany, is that Kante – the unfathomably energetic Ballon d’Or contender who turns a 4-3-3 formation into a 4-4-3 – is a complete one-off. But against Croatia a fortnight ago England outran a similar midfield with Modric at its heart.
Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips was the dynamo behind that, and Gareth Southgate will choose between him and Jordan Henderson this time. Both could start, or there could be a case for doing shifts with the potential for 120 minutes.
You can certainly see the logic in Phillips, though: if you want someone to run all day, see if there are any Leeds players available. Alongside Henderson against the Czech Republic, he showed he can provide more incisive passing than holding midfielder Declan Rice to help improve England’s disappointing creativity to date.
Southgate has flirted with 3-4-3 against the better nations ever since his team qualified for the competition pre-Covid.
The problem with matching Germany’s formation is that England have not tended to play it the same way. Against Portugal but not so much France, Robin Gosens has played very high as the left wing-back, adding to his side’s attacking threat. When England play with wing-backs they tend to be more reserved and with neither Phillips nor Henderson playing like Gundogan does for Manchester City, the team can become split into seven defensive players and three attacking. It is putting a lot of pressure on the three, particularly as Harry Kane is not on top of his game.
If there are to be wing-backs, selecting Bukayo Saka, so brilliant in a front three against the Czech Republic, would at least send out a message that England plan to be bold.
It is in midfield, though, where the real battle could be fought.