This had shadows from Roy Hodgson’s darkest days when Southgate was booed at Molineux – but all may not be lost just yet
When the goals came, all four, Southgate had the aloof look of England managers of yore, schooled by a continental opponent full of technically gifted players who had a sure grasp of what was being asked of them. What’s the big idea behind this England team? Where is the vision that all are married to?
How long before Gareth Southgate calls new England cricket head coach Brendon McCullum to talk about the power of positive thinking? It’s not fresh legs that England need, it’s a new perspective.
While McCullum transformed our failing cricketers by instilling meaning and fun, Southgate seems to have hit a wall. The reset to inclusion and identity that he pushed has apparently lost momentum. Stunned by an early goal, England were absolutely unable to answer it and sat at the bottom of the Nations League group while Southgate reflected on the worst scoring string of his tenure.
The Trent Bridge crowd was treated to a fearless English performance of calculated risk and red-blooded excitement. Sixty miles in the west of England, footballers continued to make the sport look tedious and boring. Perhaps staying behind would loosen the bonds? A failure to deal with the towering Adam Szalai put Harry Kane on the penalty spot. He missed his kick. Roland Sallai buried the chance that presented itself to him.
Southgate hoped by pairing Jude Bellingham and Conor Gallagher in advanced midfield roles, England would scurry and see Hungary making mistakes. By moving all in with high energy, Southgate sacrificed the role of playmaker. That left England missing a No. 10 to unsettle Hungary between the lines, changing pace and setting a rhythm. The result was another incoherent, informal ad.
Looking behind him, Kane saw Gallagher, Bellingham, Bowen, who might each have something to offer individually but suffered from a lack of leadership and direction in this muddled context. England were not helped by having a right-footed left-back in Reece James who was hampered in advanced positions by the need to turn inside. The overlaps, for which he is celebrated on the right, are completely absent here. As a result, attacks slowed and recycling began.
Jarrod Bowen was often England’s outsider. He was mostly isolated when in possession and forced to find individual solutions that overwhelmed him. Bowen runs best on the passage rather than trying to force his way through a well-ordered rear guard alone. The mood in the halls at half-time was in sharp contrast to the Trent Bridge experience, where fans were subjected to thunderous competition, all for free.
Realizing the need for a change, Southgate pulled Bowen back for Raheem Sterling at half-time and re-formed the defence, with James moving to the right flank of defence. Gallagher made way for Mason Mount ten minutes later. The movements gave England a much more recognizable shape, inviting Sterling and Mount to fill in around Kane.
Southgate has walked a delicate line this summer, balancing the need to rest his weary favorites with a desire to test the quality of fringe players. The imposition of a Nations League tournament that few wish to compete in has proved wholly unsatisfactory and disruptive. Southgate has two games against Germany and Italy in September to shake up the group and find a sense of themselves.
The second half was – believe it or not – an improvement on the first. Kane headed the bar but England struggled to hit the final pass. Conversely, Hungary made the most of their possession, scoring a second from the superb Sallai, a thundering right-footed third from Zsolt Nagy and a crippling fourth from Daniel Gazdag. All were quick hits at the break. Ramsdale didn’t stand a chance for either of them.
That result completed a run of four English games without a win for the first time since the dark days of Roy Hodgson’s reign. The time to panic has not yet come. Southgate has proven adept in the tournament environment, guiding England to a semi-final and final in back-to-back events. Southgate claims to know his best team. The requirement in September is to get involved and capture the public’s imagination ahead of the World Cup opener against Iran in November.
School education by Hungary is not known. Hopefully this doesn’t have the epochal significance of the 1953 brawl at the feet of the magical Magyars. Let it be a warning that elicits an answer.