From European Championship finalists to relegation scrappers in the space of 11 months, Gareth Southgate’s England are at risk of crashing back to earth with a bang. A team that seemed bound to make history for all the right reasons now seem destined for a particular piece of ignominy, the first footballing relegation ever suffered by the country en masse.
A humiliating 4-0 defeat to Hungary in Wolverhampton leaves the Three Lions marooned at the bottom of Group A3, relegation to the second tier a distinct possibility ahead of their second games against Italy and Germany in September. Lucky that those who played in these internationals will at least get an extended break before returning to club duties.
Against the so-called minnows of the quartet England have taken zero points and scored zero goals, conceding twice as many goals to the team ranked 40th in the world as they had in all of Euro 2020. Here was their worst home defeat since 1928, a night that, at least on the scoreboard, was more debilitating than the historic defeat of 1953 when the Mighty Magyars proved to England that they were no longer a great superpower, perhaps not just in footballing terms. This loss will not be as seismic but it does throw an almighty spanner in the works with just two games to go before Southgate selects his World Cup squad.
There would appear to be those who do not think he should get to make that call. England’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey can scarcely get through 90 minutes without a tidal wave of opprobrium on social media over the perceived negativity of his tactics. Talk radio phonelines saw supporters pitch for Southgate to be sacked after the first defeat to Hungary, away in Budapest. For the first time in his reign those frustrations seemed to have spilled over into the crowd as sections of Molineux chanted “you don’t know what you’re doing.” The days of the England boss being serenaded to the tune of Atomic Kitten’s Whole Again feel a lifetime ago.
With the Nations League trap door sliding ajar perhaps the Three Lions need their own relegation escapologist? Perhaps Sam Allardyce or Roy Hodgson. Aaah yes, of course. The answer would be no anyway; taking England to a World Cup semifinal and European Championship final ought to earn a manager sufficient trust from a nation to get past a wobble like this recent international break has brought. Harry Kane certainly left no room for doubt as to his view on the manager, asked about Southgate’s future after the game he simply said it was “not even a question I should be answering”.
What Southgate’s critics will understandably seize on, however, is that the real issues at Molineux tonight were the same as those that have held England back to some extent even during their great success of the last four years. They may have conceded four goals from five shots on target but really the issues were at the other end of the pitch where the Three Lions swiftly ran out of ideas to carve through the low block that Hungary set themselves in once Roland Sallai had capitalized on sloppy defensive play at a free kick.
Southgate had once more moved to the 4-3-3 that his critics demand of him despite so much evidence to suggest that England are a more settled side with three at the back. But the trio of Conor Gallagher, Kalvin Phillips and to a lesser extent, Jude Bellingham seemed to typify the midfield issues that have dogged the country for generations. There was dynamism aplenty, and no one could fault their energy early on, but none of them looked like players who might set the tempo, that could drag Hungary out of their 18 yard box before slipping the decisive pass in behind.
Within and without their squad England do not have a table setter to compare with Thiago Alcantara, Joshua Kimmich or Marco Verratti, the sort who might simply have ground Hungary down in a match where the hosts turned 65 percent possession into two shots on target. Equally, Southgate cannot argue that he has not had time to find workarounds.
Elite managers find a way to get more out of their players. There is little evidence that Southgate belongs in that echelon. But then, those sorts of managers tend not to find themselves managing national teams. The qualities of Trent Alexander-Arnold have largely gone unexploited when he has been available for his international side, pointing to a difficulty in embracing maverick talents that also explains why James Maddison’s international involvement is so fleeting.
England have plenty of inside forwards and playmakers who thrive off quick balls, but no one to get it to them. Instead they can be guilty of enabling Kane’s worst habits, his belief that he can write and sing the theme tune for this team as he drops into midfield in an attempt to spring teammates in behind. It works wonderfully for Tottenham, where he has a telepathic understanding with one of the world’s best finishers in Heung-min Son. When he was overhitting passes to Bukayo Saka, however, it was tempting to wonder how easily transferrable those qualities are even with teammates ostensibly similar skills.
What chances that did come England’s way were largely from set pieces, but at both ends of the field they seemed to miss the authority with which Harry Maguire deals with balls into the box. Equally the Manchester United captain, so valued by Southgate, is even more of a lightning rod than his international manager and his introduction in place of Bukayo Saka, long after the game had been lost, brought yet more indignation from the Molineux crowd.
He perhaps should have been in from the off. He was not the only regular starter of whom that could have been said; Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount both offered flashes of quality when introduced in the second half, while Jordan Pickford’s place as a starter in Qatar seems all the more nailed on after a poor display by Aaron Ramsdale. The big takeaway from the Nations League campaign had been, in Southgate’s words, that “you’ve got to be at full strength.”
The reality is that even a weakened English side should not have to struggle to beat a disciplined but unspectacular team such as Hungary. But, to be fair, this was an aberration, the sort of match where England’s mistakes were compounded by matters outside their control, not least Clement Turpin’s baffling decision to send John Stones off when he had not even committed a foul. In most ways this was at odds with the staid, pragmatic and largely effective football that has been Southgate’s calling card.
That football tends to be effective at tournaments as Germany, France, Italy and Spain can attest from recent years. It works for England too. “Let’s not forget where we have come from, our first final in 60 years, a semifinals in the World Cup, compared to where we have been in the last 50 years,” said Kane.
That was enough to win hearts and minds in 2018 and 2021, and it will be again if England can make a deep run in Qatar. But, for now, a bond that seemed unbreakable between Southgate’s team and his public seems to be fraying. It could hardly have come at a worse time.