Handed the reins after an encouraging four-match interim stint, the former defender deployed a bold, attack-minded side built upon a three-man backline and got an impressive response in Dortmund.
England looked comfortable in possession and a far larger threat than the World Cup winners, only to be caught cold as Podolski’s 130th and final Germany appearance ended with a fairytale strike that secured a 1-0 win.
It was a sickener considering how well Southgate’s men performed – but given how 2016 panned out for the Three Lions after starting it with a remarkable comeback win in Berlin perhaps the display is more important than the result.
Southgate’s experimental three-man defence worked well and his attackers’ intensity caused no end of problems, with Adam Lallana hitting the post as England looked to turn first-half dominance into an opening goal.
Germany lacked such force in their play as the focus on Podolski’s final appearance seemed to take the edge off their play, only for the former Arsenal man to wind back the years by unleashing a stunning 25-yard goal.
It was a fitting end to a fine international career on a night of promise for England, even if it ended Southgate’s four-match unbeaten run as manager.
There was a sombre mood around the Three Lions camp before the match, with Southgate saying the Westminster terror attack “puts football into perspective”.
The Football Association chose to mark the attack in Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania instead of at Signal Iduna Park, where the hosts said farewell to popular forward Podolski.
The former Arsenal man’s heartfelt speech delayed kick-off in Dortmund and brought a testimonial feel to an occasion that England appeared to approach with far greater desire.
Sheffield-born Jamie Vardy spearheaded Southgate’s high-pressing side, failing to win an early penalty as he proved a handful for a defence struggling to contain Lallana and Dele Alli’s movement.
Debutant Michael Keane lashed over from a corner as the Three Lions pushed for an opener with surprising aggression, while former Hull City midfielder Jake Livermore, winning his second cap 1,680 days after his debut, held firm in the middle.
Song about German bombers from the away end were the only black mark on an enjoyable start by England, with Eric Dier – the matchwinner in Berlin last March – heading a corner goalwards but seeing Marc-Andre ter Stegen gather comfortably.
England’s bright start nearly brought a deserved opener in the 31st minute as Lallana went on a marauding run down the left. Showing few ill-effects of his lung-busting run, the attacking midfielder’s low shot beat Ter Stegen but rebounded off the far post.
Vardy was well-placed to turn the ball home had Lallana passed on a night when the home fans were far more interested in cheering everything Podolski did, no matter how small the contribution.
Debutant Timo Werner would have given Germany something to enjoy had he picked Joe Hart’s pocket, but the goalkeeper epitomised the confidence coursing through England with a Cruyff turn.
Dier failed with a 20-yard free-kick and Ter Stegen held firm to deny an admittedly poor Dele finish before half-time.
Julian Brandt fizzed a shot wide and Podolski nearly latched onto a ball into the box after the break, although England were still pushing for a goal themselves.
Livermore’s quietly impressive performance continued by winning possession and feeding Vardy down the right, but Dele was unable to latch onto the resulting cross at the far post.
Dier was denied by Ter Stegen and then Dele blocked from a corner, before Andre Schurrle shot across the face of goal.
Nathan Redmond came on for his debut as England pushed for a goal, but minutes after his introduction Podolski gave the public what they wanted.
Toni Kroos’s pass was laid off by former Chelsea midfielder Schurrle into the path of the 31-year-old, who made space for himself before rifling home an outstanding left-footed drive.
The 69th-minute goal and a clutch of changes, including a debut for Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse, took the sting out of England’s display as Germany looked to add a second.
Germany: ter Stegen, Kimmich, Rudiger, Hummels, Hector, Weigl (Can 66), Kroos, Brandt (Schurrle 59), Podolski (Rudy 84), Sane, Werner (Muller 77). Unused substitutes: Trapp, Mustafi, Howedes, Sule, Leno.
England: Hart, Keane, Cahill, Smalling (Stones 85), Walker, Livermore (Ward-Prowse 82), Dier, Bertrand (Shaw 83), Alli (Lingard 71), Lallana (Redmond 66), Vardy (Rashford 70). Unused substitutes: Forster, Clyne, Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Defoe, Sterling, Heaton.
Referee: D Skomina (Slovenia).