It was shaping up to be a night when Harry Maguire hogged the wrong kind of headlines, when Gareth Southgate endured more pain, when the soul-searching around England and their manager deepened. The team had been promising in the first half against their old foes, hinting at good things without making them happen. And then it all threatened to fall apart.
Maguire had been booed by some of those present when his name was announced before kick-off. Having found his feet, some others chanted his name on the half-hour. But it lurched the other way again when he erred at the start of the second half, losing the ball as the last man before kicking Jamal Musiala to concede a penalty. Ilkay Gündogan scored to make it 1-0.
England lost their heads and their shape. Why was Maguire trying to dribble high up the pitch from left to right on 67 minutes? England had ridden their luck before that, Germany blowing chances for the second. Now they got it. Maguire was robbed, Germany moved quickly and incisively up the field and Kai Havertz finished with a wonderful curler into the far, top corner. The visitors had given a lesson in how to be clinical.
And then Southgate and his players ripped up the script. The comeback will not magic away the disquiet over Maguire. It will not dilute the questions about Southgate’s faith in him; how he can stand by him at the World Cup after this. And all the other travails over the past season and a bit. But it certainly put a different complexion on the night.
It was Luke Shaw who offered the glimmer of hope when he rammed home from a Reece James cross. The left-back took a touch on his chest and got his body shape right to score. And it was Mason Mount who sparked the capacity Wembley crowd into frenzy.
Southgate had introduced him and Bukayo Saka from the bench. The double change would be the game-changer, with Saka, especially, in electric touch. The Arsenal player was all business off the right wing, striking fear into Germany with his pace, shimmies and direct running.
When Saka turned on the ball and drifted past two opponents, Mount was on his wavelength, moving into a space on the edge of the area. The weight of Saka’s pass was perfect. Mount crashed a first-time shot past Marc-André ter Stegen.
If Saka was brilliant, the ultimate impact substitute, then Jude Bellingham, who started in midfield alongside Declan Rice, was even better. The Germans know all about Bellingham, whose star is rising as quickly as his maturity at Borussia Dortmund. But they could not suppress him here.
Nico Schlotterbeck thought that he had him under control when Bellingham moved towards a Saka pass inside the area. But Bellingham was too fast, Schlotterbeck’s challenge too late and, although it needed the guidance of the VAR, it was a clear penalty. Harry Kane lashed it into the top corner. It was a glorious kind of madness.
The late sting was in keeping with the tone of what had gone before. A feature of the evening was Southgate’s faith in Nick Pope. The injured Jordan Pickford remains his No 1 goalkeeper but Pope appears to have pushed ahead of Aaron Ramsdale as the understudy. Pope’s distribution in the first half was erratic, to say the least, but it was a late handling error that blighted his performance. Pope had to do better with a routine shot from the substitute, Serge Gnabry. Instead he coughed it up to Havertz, who had a tap-in for the equaliser.
It did not stop Southgate from beaming widely at full-time when he embraced his opposite number, Hansi Flick. Saka had almost nicked it in stoppage time, drawing a finger-tip save from Ter Stegen after a quick break, and it felt as though the smooth outweighed the rough after what has been a turbulent Nations League campaign.
Prior to this it had been two draws, three losses and only one goal scored – which was a penalty. This felt like a positive result, marked by character, and it was encouraging, as Southgate noted, that the crowd stayed with the team, even at 2-0 down. The manager had been booed after the previous two games. There was respite for him here, heavy notes of relief.
England were the more dangerous team before the interval; creating openings, including the big one on 25 minutes when Shaw released Raheem Sterling with a lovely through-ball. Sterling chopped inside Schlotterbeck but was denied by Ter Stegen. It was nearly but not quite for England. They had to take greater care with the final action. Sterling also shot at Ter Stegen.
Sterling got away with a shirt pull on Thilo Kehrer inside the area while Joshua Kimmich fizzed just wide. England also lost John Stones to a hamstring injury. But it was merely the appetiser for the second-half drama, which was fired when Maguire gave the ball away to Musiala before being bamboozled by a step-over from the former England youth international. The only surprise was that VAR had to intervene to ensure the penalty award. There was plenty more to come.