In another timeline England played Germany yesterday in Dublin, where Jack Grealish and Declan Rice were booed every time they touched the ball by a crowd that spent the rest of the time urging Germany onwards to victory.
It was decided that this prospect posed too grave a threat to the health of the nation. Instead those Irish people who would have gone to the match got to watch 40,000 mainly English fans at Wembley roar on the England team to one of their greatest days. If England do go on to win the Euros, we in Ireland can take a quiet pride in having smoothed their path to glory.
Even the most passionate Irish Germanophiles could appreciate what was a genuine redemption story for Gareth Southgate. He has been redeemed not so much from the memories of his missed penalty in 1996 as from other people's endless references to his supposedly-still-suppurating psychic wounds, as though he were the victim of some appalling tragedy or the remorseful perpetrator of some hideous crime rather than the scuffer of a shot from 12 yards.
Now, instead, he’s the architect of England’s first knockout victory over Germany in 55 years, and unlike many tournament wins this one had the manager’s fingerprints all over it.
For Southgate to name a side featuring eight defensive players out of 11 could have been seen as the move of a managerial chicken, but it was in fact extremely brave. If it had all gone wrong then each one of the top attacking talents he had left on the bench – Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount, Phil Foden – would have been transformed into heavy sticks for his tens of millions of critics to beat him with.
Knowing that he risked being branded forever as a coward, Southgate resisted the temptation to 'be brave'. He sent out his team with a cautious defensive plan
If it had all gone wrong then Southgate’s decision to change his formation to 3-4-3 to mirror Germany would have been seen as waving the white flag. Why do we always worry about the opposition, why can’t we ever believe in ourselves, release the handbrake, throw off the shackles, etc etc.
Southgate would have been seen as the betrayer of a generation of brilliant English talent, the manager who at the moment of truth scuttled away to hide under the bed, the penalty disgrace who didn’t even have the dignity to let the English die with their boots on.
Gareth Southgate, who remembers and, indeed, lived some of the England-Germany history to which his players are blithely oblivious, would have been acutely aware of what people would say about him if it all went wrong. Nobody understood the stakes better than him.
Knowing that he risked being branded forever as a coward, Southgate resisted the temptation to “be brave”. He sent out his team with a cautious defensive plan, in a formation tailored to imitate Germany’s formation and nullify their strengths. He stood in front of a bench packed with pouting, brooding genius and watched as, for once, it didn’t go wrong. For once it all went gloriously right.
Looking at the line-ups before the game you had to wonder if Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice would be up to the challenge of playing against Toni Kroos and Leon Goretzka, who have five Champions League titles between them. Surely the vastly more experienced German midfielders, with the brilliant Joshua Kimmich outside them on the wing, would run the game.
Ten days ago against Portugal, Kroos and Ilkay Gundogan had controlled the game together as an inseparable duo, seemingly never more than a few metres apart. Against England, every time Kroos looked up Phillips seemed to be right in his face, and his partner Goretzka was usually to be seen standing the far side of some other England player.
Between them Phillips and Rice prevented Germany from ever establishing the kind of control that was the basis of that spectacular victory over Portugal. Without control of the centre, Kimmich was marginalised on the right, while Gosens was hardly seen on the left.
With the midfields cancelling each other, the attackers on either side were left to feed off whatever scraps came from set-pieces, flashes of creativity, or mistakes. And one of England’s forwards in particular rose to the challenge to repay Southgate’s faith.
It's clear that many in England now believe all they have to do to reach the final is turn up
Raheem Sterling's shot from 25 yards was England's first effort of the game, but his most significant move of the first half was a driving run at the heart of the German defence that drew in four defenders and left the suddenly unmarked Harry Kane with a simple chance. Kane missed, but Sterling's run had demonstrated how the defence could be unbalanced and the stalemate broken.
Germany had nobody who could do this. Thomas Müller is a pure combination player who lacks pace, while Kai Havertz can glide powerfully with the ball but he's not the type to burrow into tight spaces causing havoc.
Timo Werner is a poor dribbler who needs the ball to be played ahead of him into space. Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane can do the sort of thing Sterling was doing for England, but Joachim Löw had left them both on the bench.
The second half saw Sterling run into a couple of blind alleys, but it was clear that he had been told to persevere and it was another such run that brought the breakthrough goal: Sterling running through the middle, laying it off to Grealish, who found Shaw, who crossed for Sterling to score the biggest of his 17 England goals to date.
There was still time for Sterling to almost throw it all away with a short backpass that let Germany spring Müller through on goal, but finishing from 20 yards while running at full speed is a skill Müller doesn’t engage very often, and he proved rusty. After his dramatic miss everyone knew it was England’s day; Harry Kane’s goal let the celebrations begin in earnest.
Afterwards there was much talk of the easy half of the draw and how the road had opened up to the final, with only a few tiny speedbumps marked Sweden, Denmark, Czechia.
It’s clear that many in England now believe all they have to do to reach the final is turn up, like an NBA player who has somehow ended up in a tallest dwarf contest. Southgate knows it won’t be as easy as that: look what just happened to France.
But unlike some other England managers who have arrived in this position, he has a plan and he’s going to stick with it. It’s up to the players and luck to take care of the rest.