LONDON — Finally, Gareth Southgate gave England fans the lineup so many wanted to see. The only problem was what followed.
One of precious few criticisms lingering from a summer in which England reached their first tournament final in 55 years is a desire to see such a vibrant, young squad rich in individual attacking quality seize the day with greater intent. There remains a distance between the devastating team England can field on paper and the more cautious, conservative unit that almost won Euro 2020 and will almost certainly reach next year’s World Cup in Qatar despite Tuesday’s 1-1 draw against Hungary at Wembley.
This looked a significant step in attempting to bridge that gap when the teams were announced.
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Denied the availability of Kalvin Phillips due to a calf strain, Southgate resisted the urge to deploy two holding midfielders and instead used Declan Rice as the solitary shield with Phil Foden and Mason Mount operating in more advanced positions. This enabled the manager to select Foden, Mount, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Jack Grealish in the starting lineup — an attacking quintet to rival any in Europe and a selection similar to one assistant coach Steve Holland questioned the logic of when supporters were calling for Southgate to let the handbrake off.
“This is not fantasy football,” said Holland in June on the eve of Euro 2020. “It is nice to play that game, but you can’t just throw four or five players together.”
He was right. This really wasn’t fantasy football. In fact, it was more like a nightmare early on when the opening exchanges were overshadowed by fighting between Hungary supporters and police, later confirmed to have been triggered by racist abuse aimed at a steward.
Violence continued in that section of the 69,380 crowd as police were pushed back onto the concourse and perhaps it had some impact on England, who were curiously uninventive and slow in possession despite the individuals on show. Things got worse when Luke Shaw was punished for a high foot on Loic Nego in the box, giving Roland Sallai the chance to convert a 23rd-minute penalty, leading to a flare being set off in the away end — adding to the charge sheet Hungary’s fans had already created.
England only needed 14 minutes to equalise, but the fact they did so from a set piece only underlined the lack of goal-scoring threat they mustered.
It wasn’t much better after the interval, and if Southgate needed a reminder of the demand from supporters to find more dynamism in their performances against better opponents, it came when Grealish was taken off with 28 minutes left. Boos were audible in among applause for Manchester City’s £100 million man, who barely contained his disappointment at leaving the field, shaking his head and sitting in the dugout alone in apparent disbelief. He had been England’s best player to that point.
Kane played in Sterling for the best chance thereafter but his tame effort was saved by Hungary goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, and Southgate won’t have won over many with his decision to introduce Jordan Henderson among other changes and revert to something more closely resembling 4-2-3-1 for the final few minutes. Kane was withdrawn for Tammy Abraham after skewing another opportunity high into the stands, ending a run of 15 consecutive qualifiers without a goal, but little changed in a decidedly flat finale that saw Southgate abandon 4-3-3 altogether in favour a wing-backs to attempt different angles of attack.
“We’ve been playing 4-3-3 a lot but perhaps with a different profile of number eights,” Southgate said after the match. “Today we wanted to look at something a little bit different. We didn’t have Kalvin Phillips anyway, who has been such an essential part of that midfield, and we knew that we would have to break a packed defence down.
I’m not certain it was the profile of players that was the issue tonight in terms of not being able to break them down, we just didn’t play with the same fluidity and individual level of performance that I think we’ve come to appreciate and expect. We have to be honest about that as a group.”
The short-term damage is minimal. Remarkably, it is the first time England have failed to win a tournament qualifier at Wembley since September 2012. But the level of opposition in so many of those games is modest at best and therefore judgements are cast forward with the next tournament in mind.
And while England’s 4-3-3 shape facilitated an easy win in Andorra three days earlier, a team ranked 40th in the world by FIFA were able to deny them from open play without too many alarming moments.
Southgate has earned the right to adopt whatever approach he feels best facilitates a successful outcome, but this England team still stands on the brink of delivering on its individual potential, studious rather than swashbuckling with just over a year until the country will expect more.