Football Features

“We didn’t play at the level we need to play” – Five things learned as England slump to a 1-1 draw with Hungary

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:27, 12 October 2021 | Updated: 23:26, 24 November 2022

In a dour night of football, England were held to a 1-1 draw in their World Cup qualification match against Hungary at Wembley.

What did we learn?

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1. The Kane Problem

The biggest, most consistent problem faced by England is the fact that Harry Kane is more often than not a bad fit for the way England want to play. He’s slow and sluggish on the ball, meaning when he gets it play automatically slows down as he labours to turn and find a pass.

He plays far too deep these days. Kane’s passing is superb but his best attribute remains his finishing yet he is only sporadically in a position to take advantage of it. This is particularly annoying when Jack Grealish starts as the Manchester City man is an incredible creative talent and he would only need Kane as a presence in the box to make the most of the chances he creates.

Southgate’s reluctance to take Kane off has often cost England, such as in the World Cup semi-final defeat and the Euro 2020 final defeat. In both cases a more mobile and dynamic forward could have helped England extend their lead rather than hold onto it for grim death.

The one positive is that Southgate did take Kane off, albeit with just 15 minutes of the match remaining. However it is a start, and if Southgate can become less beholden to his captain then there’s more chance that England can actually start to thrive.

2. Hungary show their class

When Hungary faced England in Budapest there was none of the hyper-aggressive pressing and defensive organisation that there was when they shook up Euro 2020. The Magyars got wiped out by the Three Lions, losing 0-4.

Tonight at Wembley they re-found that aggression and drive. They were exceptional in the defensive phases, dedicating one of their centre-backs to keep tabs on Harry Kane and then just working incredibly well to shut off passes lanes and basically dare England to beat them with dribblers. And when only Jack Grealish stepped up to try, Hungary knew they could shut England down.

Sure, their goal came from a fortunate penalty (fortunate in the sense that Luke Shaw decided to crane kick Loic Nego in the head for some reason) but you cannot argue that they didn’t deserve to at least draw the game, given how superbly they shut England down.

3. Grealish is still too much of a maverick for Southgate

For an hour of the game, Jack Grealish was comfortably the best player on the pitch for England. He was confident and assertive, he demanded the ball under all manner of pressure and drove the ball forward relentlessly.

Hungary never looked less comfortable than when Grealish was running at them. He was putting in an obviously talismanic performance and when he saw Bukayo Saka on the touchline ready to come on, it would have been reasonable to assume one of the midfielders was coming off to allow Saka to play wide and Grealish to take up a more focal central berth.

But no.

Grealish was subbed off.

It was an inexplicable sub and the Three Lions looked undeniably worse without Grealish. It was a move that seemed to carry with it the implication that even though he’s forced his way into the starting XI following his move to Manchester City, Jack Grealish is still too much of a maverick for Gareth Southgate’s tastes. Too much of an unpredictable, chaotic force where Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling are much more positionally disciplined and Harry Kane is the untouchable captain.

4. Racism rears its ugly head again

The early parts of England’s game against Hungary were sadly more notable for reports that police were clashing with a section of Hungarian fans in the stands of Wembley. This violence was disappointing but became so much worse when a statement released by the police confirmed that the incident occurred due to an incident of racial abuse directed at a steward.

Racism has followed England around like a shadow in the last few months and it has only made it plain just how badly action needs to be taken. Fines are not doing the job, there needs to be harsher sanctions for these nations that allow and enable racial abuse.

5. Southgate gets it wrong

There’s no doubt that England were subpar against Hungary. As much as you have to credit Marco Rossi’s men for the way they approached the game, England should have done better, and even Gareth Southgate knows it. The England manager summed it up succinctly post-match, saying: “we didn’t play at the level we need to play.”

The way England switched to a 4-3-3 system was interesting and bold, but Declan Rice is a poor choice to play pivot in such a system. Kalvin Phillips plays it at Leeds and to first attempt it with the West Ham man rather than a student of Marcelo Bielsa is baffling.

So with Rice’s struggles, we also had Mason Mount disconnected from the area where he is the most dangerous in attack. The Chelsea player is a supreme link-man for playmakers like Jack Grealish, but when he’s deeper he can’t do that job properly.

And Phil Foden, who has been an electric force in attack for Manchester City was pushed into an unfamiliar deeper role, where he again failed to show his best self. Southgate said: “we’ve got to go away and reflect, we shouldn’t just judge things on one game.”

One hopes that includes some self-reflection on his part as to why he chose now to experiment with a midfield three and then did so in such a bizarre way with players who are ill-suited to play that role.