Football Features

Hungary beat England to expose the darker side of Gareth Southgate’s sufferball

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 19:19, 4 June 2022

England fans saw the darker side of Gareth Southgate’s sufferball as England lost 0-1 to Hungary in the Nations League.

The match was a dour occasion marked by three moments of note, a cross from Loic Nego, the foul and penalty that eventually decided the game and a hysterical miss that should have ended up giving the scoreline some gloss.

All three of those moments belonged to Hungary, who beat England for the first time since the 1962 World Cup.

With all due respect to Hungary, this current side (which is better than its reputation, as we saw at Euro 2020) is not The Mighty Magyars who so thoroughly thrashed England back in 1953 and would have won the World Cup in 1954 but for some questionable officiating. It is a scrappy side with a few quality players that is very well coached.

In other words, England with their glittering array of Champions League regulars and Premier League winners (and, indeed, Champions League winners) should be able to beat them. Or at least play like they’re going to beat them, dominating the game and perhaps getting picked off on the break, much as France were against Denmark the night before.

But England simply do not want to play that way. It’s not even that they can’t; this is perhaps the most glittering array of technical players an England manager has had at his disposal since the 1980’s; it’s that they won’t.

Looking at the XI selected to play Hungary and with the exception of James Justin, you won’t see a player that doesn’t have a superb and established presence in the Premier League. Four of the XI have played in either Champions League or Europa League finals in the last three years, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mason Mount have even won it!

But then, look at the way in which they’re lined up.

Three centre-backs, sure. Then two full-backs as wing-backs, including a right-footer on the left in Justin. Then two midfielders who can play raiding box-to-box roles but are both deployed as sitters, holding midfield. Then in attack you have one striker, one winger, and then a midfielder in Mason Mount.

That is risibly risk-averse. Perhaps something one could accept if England were facing France, Spain or Argentina. World-class opponents loaded with match-winners who the Three Lions would have to stop before they could think about winning the game.

But, again, this is Hungary.

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“I’d like to see more of an identity from England,” said Michael Owen post-match. And you can see where he’s coming from, much as there was an identity on display, it just wasn’t a nice one. England have selected a squad capable of playing much more positively than they did today, and it’s bizarre that it took going 1-0 down for Southgate to loosen the reins and even then, of his five substitutions, three were like-for-like ones that did little to impact the game positively (one sub, Reece James, conceded the penalty two minutes after coming on).

Why was Mason Mount playing in attack, not midfield? Having his forward drive and goalscoring coming from deep would have destabilised Hungary’s defensive structure. Why did Conor Gallagher not get on? He’s shown repeated gamechanging ability.

Why play James Justin on the left and not Bukayo Saka from the start? Having a team full of right-footers disrupted the balance of the side as everyone kept cutting back. Saka produced England’s only good moment of the game with a nice run.

Why did Jack Grealish only come on after an hour rather than start and be a focal part of the attack? His ball-carrying is something that could really hurt a side like Hungary? Why did Trent Alexander-Arnold come off? He’s a chance creation machine. Where was Tammy Abraham? After his excellent season with Roma, he could have offered a different route to goal alongside Harry Kane.

Southgate’s system of play seeks to minimise risk, but against weaker sides like Hungary the real risk is not playing to the strengths of the squad, which is absolutely attacking football that creates genuine pressure and thrills the crowd. England should have been hammering Peter Gulasci in the Hungary goal, instead of just occasionally slapping the ball in his dirction.

England now move to play Germany in Munich, an opponent that Southgate will feel justifies his risk-averse approach. But while the Mannschaft are better underneath Hansi Flick, they are still a side rebuilding themselves. They are there for the taking, much as Italy were in the Euro 2020 final.

Back then, Southgate declined the opportunity to have his team play with verve and attacking drive to build on the 1-0 lead their early goal gave them, allowing Italy to equalise and then drag the final to penalties, where they won.

Southgate’s sufferball very definitely cost England a trophy at Euro 2020, will he learn his lesson and let his side cut loose in the Nations League? Or will his risk averse style persist and pull England away from possible glory?