If there can be any consolation in the big Wembley moment delivering only one dangerous shot on goal, then it is that it did not degenerate into the same kind of annihilation as the last time. It was 6-2 to Germany five years ago.
That is a very thin straw to clutch at, though. This was a German side without six key players, operating at 75 per cent for much of the second half, which the French made look very ordinary in Offenbach a month ago. For as long as the game on Sunday was competitive, you feared for Mark Sampson’s England players every time the Germans advanced.
“They go with the trend. It’s not for nothing that they reached the final of the European Championship in 2009,” the Germans’ deeply impressive manager, Silvia Neid, said of England last night. She did not mention that it was in that final her country dished out the 6-2 demolition.
The significance of Sunday's occasion – more than 45,000 supporters watching the England women’s team’s first game at Wembley, though much less than the 55,000 announced beforehand – should not detract from question marks about some of the fundamental flaws in their football.
There seemed to be a psychological deficit as the game rapidly fell away from them. The most elementary five-yard passes failed to find English feet in a first half when England lacked the intensity required to close the Germans down in the pockets of space in front of defence. They were harried and hassled into elementary errors. Each of the goals they conceded was poor from a technical perspective, no matter how celebrated the opposition.
“The players are not silly,” said Sampson, their manager. “They know at this level if you make small errors you are going to be punished. When presented with opportunities [Germany] didn’t look back.”
There must be questions about Sampson’s team selection too. The physical superiority and height advantage the Germans enjoyed was significant and the presence of Jill Scott in the starting XI, rather than on the substitutes’ bench, might have gone some way to making up the difference. Sampson’s response last night was that he had wanted to challenge Germany technically, not physically.
“It’s about trying to go eye-to-eye and be positive,” he said. “The only way to beat these teams is to give as good as you get and play your own game.” But England ended up overpowered and outplayed.
The reverie created by their World Cup qualifying campaign – 10 wins from 10, one goal conceded, capped by a 10-0 demolition of Montenegro – lasted for a full eight seconds. That was how long it took Jordan Nobbs to win the ball from Melanie Behringer, from the kick-off, give and go, then take it back and shoot from 25 yards, forcing the German goalkeeper Almuth Schult to touch on to the bar. It was a start beyond England imaginings but it did not get any better.
Behind the euphoria of a first Wembley occasion for this team skulked the unvarnished reality that Germany are a tier ahead of Sampson’s in the world game: a side drilled to press opposition relentlessly, two players against one whenever possible. A side England had not beaten in 19 attempts.
Neid’s players were remorseless. Their two holding midfielders, Behringer and Lena Goessling, were the game’s orchestrators and there was a German intensity in the final third of the field which England’s defence could not cope with.
Germany led after only six minutes, when Behringer’s corner was deflected into the net by Alex Scott as Simone Laudehr put her under pressure. The second came six minutes later: a mix-up on the halfway line allowing Celia Sasic, the Bundesliga top scorer, to race half the length of the pitch with Demi Stokes in vain pursuit. Lucy Bronze, distracted by the German threat behind and gesturing for cover, allowed Sasic to make five yards of progress before arriving with a covering tackle. Too late.
An England group huddle at that stage was a means of seeking to hold the line against catastrophe. The Germans’ second-half gear drop helped. By then, the game was finished, courtesy of the freedom Sasic was allowed just before the interval to score with a simple header from Tabea Kemme’s cross.
Many who have followed the contours of the women’s game here savoured the thought of Chelsea’s Eniola Aluko causing danger. She could not find her form when the moment came. Fara Williams has dictated the course of England’s game during the procession to next summer’s finals in Canada. She could not stamp her mark on the Germans. The game passed Karen Carney by, too.
For all that, there is no reason to believe that this staging point is anything but progress for the English women’s game. The rain, which may have accounted for the shortfall in expected attendance, rail engineering works and the German rate of attrition were not supposed to be a part of the script but the scene at Marylebone in the early afternoon – hundreds of supporters benefiting from the imaginative ticket pricing – suggests the day will have helped. The beneficiaries of those cheap tickets discovered what the men’s game knows all too well: that there is no substitute for a deeply ingrained system of player development, nurtured over many years.
Any talk of England returning from Canada with silverware next summer must be put in a box labelled “lunacy”. The challenge must be to entertain for a while and to at least contain a side like this when the moment comes.
“We are a team moving along on a journey,” Sampson said last night. “Let’s not forget that last summer the German team won the European Championship and we didn’t win a game. It’s the most possession we’ve had against Germany and the most we’ve attacked against Germany.” A consolation of sorts.
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