Grealish was the catalyst for England and Hungary’s greatest tormentor – his removal seemed to uplift opponents more than his own side
WEMBLEY – Watch what you want. The reshaping of England as a team of front-line footballers eventually reached Wembley. It might just be short-lived. Gareth Southgate’s love of structure and order was put aside in his determination to find a new path to victory.
If England is to reach the final and prevail, they have to be better, he reasonably concluded after losing to Italy at the European Championships. This was his admission to change, an opportunity to experiment with all talents. The sample may be small, but a draw with Hungary was not his intention and left him even more in a bind.
The move away from the double defensive shield allowed Southgate to pick a midfield of Declan Rice, Phil Foden and Mason Mount, as well as an offensive trident with Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.
This was a nirvana and for aesthetes who found the Rice-Kalvin Phillips tandem as safe as it was defensive, it unnecessarily slowed England down on the part of the pitch that really mattered. After all, what is the game about if, in this fertile age of technically savvy Englishmen, we cannot use the gifts of the strangely gifted?
Southgate justified its safety first impulse at the EM with the fact that the calendar was squeezed by the pandemic. There is no time to test different systems before the European Championship, and a big championship is not the right environment for experiments given the absolute price of defeat.
His hand was somewhat constrained by Phillips’ injury and with England four points ahead of the pack, there was no better time to unleash the horses. And what did he discover? First and foremost, an opponent with their own agenda to push. Hungary’s positive performance at the European Championship was not reflected in Konstanz in the World Cup qualification. The heavy defeat against England last month was followed by a narrow defeat last weekend at home to Albania.
Coming to Wembley was like a call to action for a young team determined to show their own qualities. They did this by taking advantage of England’s incoherent, uneven start. The new approach brought with it the compulsion to be entertaining, the responsibility to be convincing in everything they did. This proved to be a bit of a burden and played into the hands of organized opponents who kept things simple and played the game to their liking.
Although the penalty for Hungary was generous thanks to Luke Shaw’s high boot, the lead was not undeserved. For 24 minutes, Hungary was the more coherent. Sterling, England’s leading man at the Euros, was anonymous, Grealish a restless presence and Foden harmless. Allowing them to roam was indeed England’s downfall, as it appeared to rob them of the structure that served them well in the summer. Maybe the target would get her attention.
England were instantly three feet faster on the pitch and, most importantly, Grealish started running at the defenders. It was as if his boldness gave England the confidence and authority to let go. It was Grealish who pulled the foul that equalized. That the goal was supposed to be the result of a set piece and knocked home by a center-back was kind of ironic with all the craft around him, but it was nice nonetheless and John Stones was appropriately celebrated as he drove away to the partying.
England might have been in the lead at break if Sterling had made better use of his chance at the back post. Although Peter Gulasci fended off his first attempt well, Sterling should have done better on the rebound. It was hard to avoid the feeling he would have done just a few months ago.
England started the second half like the first and had to respond to Hungary’s inventive inspiration. A pass from Foden to Sterling on the lower right changed everything. Hungary was cut open by the pace and accuracy of the break. What’s more, they let themselves be deterred for a short time, which made England all the more attractive.
The clear opening was still missing. Southgate’s solution was to replace Grealish with Bukayo Saka on the hour. Grealish didn’t look pleased, maybe understandable. After all, he had been the catalyst that had roused England from its early lethargy.
The distance from Grealish seemed to uplift Hungary more than England. After their main tormentor was removed, they saw more of the ball, mainly because England couldn’t hold it too. With 15 minutes left, Southgate opted for the nuclear option, captivating the boys of the summer, Kane and Sterling. Both had missed opportunities in the second half that they would have buried to the best of their ability. To you, Tammy Abraham, supported by the introduction of Jordan Henderson to bring a sense of order and stability for the final sprint.
Unfortunately, Abraham would not finish the game, an injury forced his retirement in added time. It was a development that summed up more of a night that didn’t ignite.