BUDAPEST, Hungary — If England are thrown out of step by the noise of some 30,000 children and their vuvuzelas, how will they cope against Germany on Tuesday night in a fearsome Allianz Arena?
The UEFA Nations League is fading in the context of the grueling end of domestic football and the World Cup in Qatar later this year, but Saturday’s 1-0 defeat by Hungary only raises further questions about England’s ability to continue without to insist home comforts.
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Gareth Southgate has spoken about the issue in meetings with his players this week, aware that just 10 of the 23-man squad that reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia are in this latest group, the vast majority of which are Majority reached last year’s Euro 2020 final while training at St George’s Park Base and playing just a game away from Wembley.
These were certainly unusual conditions. A match set to be played behind closed doors due to UEFA sanctions over the racist and homophobic behavior of Hungarian fans at Euro 2020 ended with a rowdy crowd of tens of thousands when the hosts exploited a clause in the regulations. School children were allowed into the Puskas Arena – up to ten per escort – and with vuvuzelas in their luggage they made a noise reminiscent of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
England seemed at times the tournament’s most disjointed, sterile side, unable to develop sustained momentum in a game of greater possession but barely noticeable until a late uproar following Dominik Szoboszlai’s 66th-minute penalty.
“They’re very difficult to crack and we were missing half a meter of real penetration,” said Southgate. “I think it was more the heat than the length of the season. The other factor is that we haven’t played together for three months and we’ve had three games in six months.
“In these four games, we’re trying to look at things, find out about players and try it out [to] to win. Maybe I didn’t balance that quite right today, but we learned a lot from it and I have to accept that you’re not going to win games and you have to take the criticism that comes with it as a learning that should help us later on.
“We’re disappointed because if we want to be a team that makes it to the final stages of a World Cup, we have to win these kinds of games.”
It was odd to hear Southgate blame the heat. Budapest was basking in warm temperatures – around 26C at kick-off – but England’s first game of Euros last summer was played in two degrees Celsius, a game in which they beat Croatia 1-0, and such fears hardly bode well for a World Cup to be held in a Persian Gulf state, albeit in November and December.
Southgate was right that Saturday’s starting line-up was a long way from his starting XI. Raheem Sterling, who has proved a linchpin for England lately, was an unused substitute, while Phil Foden was left behind after signing COVID-19 and Southgate named two debutants with contrasting results: Jarrod Bowen started particularly well and remained one of England’s strongest threats, while James Justin was substituted at half-time – Southgate later cited a slight calf problem – after a faulty performance at left-back. Jude Bellingham had a chance to impress in midfield, but he wasn’t able to inject the progressive midfield that many felt was missing from Southgate’s preferred pairing of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.
Fatigue will be a factor at the moment but England haven’t adjusted to their surroundings here. The atypical atmosphere took a somber turn before kick-off as England’s players were booed by significant sections of the young crowd as they knelt; the high-pitched hoots were a high-pitched tone that was in disturbing contrast to the anti-racism messages displayed on large banners across the stadium.
“From a development perspective, I want and need the team to play in front of fans,” Southgate said. “But of course that’s not the point in this case. So I’m torn as to what we actually got out of it and what the reality should have been. I think that needs to be reconsidered without a doubt.
“In fact the atmosphere when we got to the stadium, kids lined the streets, it was really friendly. They waved to us as we went outside to warm up. I thought there was some kind of pantomime boos when our team came out warming up.
“It was different with the knee injury, but that felt like inherited thinking to me. What I would say, I hear it’s still the same in our stadiums. That’s why we’re doing it and we’re continuing to take that stance, and we’re going to do it.” Carry on as a team.”
On the pitch, the referee was suspicious. Hungary’s free-kick decision was soft; Reece James, who had come on as a substitute barely two minutes earlier, rolled over Zsolt Nagy as he charged into the box but he seemed unable to control the ball and Southgate understandably described it as a ‘tough call’.
Conor Coady flashed a header just wide in the 77th minute, Harry Kane opted for a tame shot when he could have squared a pass to Jack Grealish for a tap-in and a few minutes later the England captain struck with a small attempt narrowly missed the goal Game went towards overtime. But the best chance came on the other end when Jordan Pickford parried a Laszlo Kleinheisler shot straight into Andras Schäfer in the 81st minute, who shot the rebound over the bar.
By this point Southgate had abandoned his 3-4-3 form in favor of 4-3-3 and neither looked convincing here. He previously claimed they were working on various tactical plans that could cause problems for the hosts, but those efforts apparently foundered as Hungary secured their first win over England since 1962.
This is undoubtedly the time for experimentation with the World Cup still several months away and the Nations League is a useful if largely unimportant exercise in its own right, especially this year. But Southgate will have expected more from his team here and Tuesday’s visit to Germany is a thorough test of just how strong their chances are in Qatar.
England are rightly judged by higher standards these days – the depth of talent at Southgate’s disposal and the deep runs in the last two tournaments demand it – and it’s becoming easier and easier to argue that in a match against serious opponents they can play for some have looked unconvincing at times, perhaps not since the 4-0 win on that ground last September.
Saturday’s loss might have been their first within 90 minutes since November 2020, but outside of Euro 2020, that 23-game streak included several games against minnows including San Marino, Albania and Andorra, artificially inflating the sense of consistency.
All of this won’t matter if England peak at the right time in Qatar, but rather than join the chorus lamenting the unprecedented postponement of a World Cup into the winter months, Southgate may be grateful for the extra time given the improvements needed.