BUDAPEST, Hungary — If England are thrown off their stride by the sound of roughly 30,000 children and their vuvuzelas, how are they going to handle a fearsome Allianz Arena against Germany on Tuesday night?
The UEFA Nations League pales into insignificance in the context of the grueling end to domestic football just passed and the World Cup in Qatar later this year, but Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Hungary only raises further questions of if England are capable of thriving consistently without home comforts.
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Gareth Southgate has spoken about the issue with his players during meetings this week, mindful that only 10 of the 23-man squad which reached the 2018 World Cup semifinals in Russia are in this latest group, the vast majority of which reached last year’s Euro 2020 final while training at the St George’s Park base and playing just one game away from Wembley.
These certainly were unusual conditions. A game that was supposed to be played behind closed doors due to UEFA sanctions stemming from Hungary supporters’ racist and homophobic behaviour at Euro 2020 ended up with a raucous crowd in the tens of thousands as the hosts exploited a clause in the regulations. Schoolchildren were allowed into the Puskas Arena — up to ten per accompanying adult — and with vuvuzelas in ready supply, they created a din reminiscent of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
At times, England looked like the disjointed, sterile team of that tournament, unable to generate any sustained momentum in a game where they had greater possession but created little of note until a late flurry after Dominik Szoboszlai‘s 66th-minute penalty.
“They are very difficult to break down and we lacked a half-yard in terms of our real incisiveness,” said Southgate. “I think that was more the heat than the length of the season. The other factor is we haven’t played together for three months and we have had three games in six months.
“Across these four games, we are trying to balance having a look at things, finding out about players and trying [to] win. Maybe I didn’t quite get the balance of that right today, but we’ve learned a lot from it and I have to accept you are not going to win matches and you’ve got to ride the criticism that comes from it with the learning that should help us further down the line.
“We are disappointed because if we are going to be a team that gets to the final stages of a World Cup, these are the types of games that we have to win.”
It was odd to hear Southgate blame the heat. Budapest was basking in warm temperatures — around 26 degrees C at kick-off — but England’s first game of the Euros last summer was played at two degrees high, a match in which they beat Croatia 1-0, and such fears hardly bode well for a World Cup to be played in a Persian Gulf state, albeit in November and December.
Southgate was right that the starting line-up on Saturday was some way off his first-choice eleven. Raheem Sterling, who has proved himself pivotal to England in recent times, was an unused substitute while Phil Foden was left behind after contracting COVID-19 and Southgate named two debutants with contrasting results: Jarrod Bowen started particularly bright and remained one of England’s more potent threats while James Justin was taken off at half-time — Southgate later cited a slight calf issue — after an errant showing at left wing-back. Jude Bellingham did get a chance to impress in midfield but he was unable to inject the progressive midfield passing many feel is absent in Southgate’s preferred pairing of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.
Fatigue will be a factor right now but England did not adapt to their environment here. The atypical atmosphere took a dark turn before kick-off as England’s players were booed by significant sections of the young crowd as they took a knee; the higher-pitched jeering was a jarring sound troublingly at odds with the anti-racism messaging on display through large banners located on the far side of the stadium.
“From a development perspective, I want and need the team to be playing in front of supporters,” Southgate said. “But of course, that’s not the point in this instance. So I’m torn on what we actually got from that and what the reality should have been. I think that needs some consideration without a doubt.
“In actual fact the atmosphere when we arrived at the stadium, there were kids lining the streets, it was really friendly. They were waving when we were walking out to warm up. I thought there were sort of pantomime boos when our team came out to warm up.
“That was different with the taking of the knee but that felt like inherited thinking to me. What I would say is, I hear that still it in our stadiums as well. That’s why we do it and continue to take that stand and we will keep doing that as a team.”
On the pitch, the refereeing was suspect. Hungary’s spot-kick decision was soft; Reece James, on barely two minutes earlier as a substitute, bundled over Zsolt Nagy as he burst into the box but he did not appear in control of the ball, and Southgate understandably labelled it a “harsh decision.”
Conor Coady flashed a 77th-minute header just wide, 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 a low effort just wide as the game ticked towards stoppage-time. But the best chance came at the other end amongst all this, Jordan Pickford parrying Laszlo Kleinheisler‘s 81st-minute shot straight to Andras Schafer, but he blazed the rebound over the bar.
By that stage, Southgate had abandoned his 3-4-3 shape in favour of 4-3-3, and neither looked convincing here. He claimed beforehand that they had been working on different tactical plans which could cause the hosts problems but those efforts manifestly failed 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 by itself, particularly this year. But Southgate will have expected more from his team here, and Tuesday’s visit to Germany is in that context a searching examination of how robust their chances are in Qatar.
England are rightly judged by higher standards these days — the depth of talent at Southgate’s disposal and deep runs in the last two tournaments demand it — and it is becoming easier to argue they have not looked convincing in a game against serious opponents for some time, perhaps not since winning 4-0 on this ground last September.
Saturday’s defeat may have been their first inside 90 minutes since November 2020 but outside of Euro 2020, that 23-match run has comprised multiple games against minnows including San Marino, Albania and Andorra, artificially inflating the sense of consistency.
None of this will matter if England peak at the right time in Qatar, but rather than join the chorus bemoaning the unprecedented shift that is moving a World Cup to the winter months, Southgate may currently be grateful of the extra time given the improvements that are required.