England’s drubbing by Hungary shows risk of over-attacking, warns Southgate | England

Gareth Southgate believes England’s humiliating 4-0 home defeat by Hungary was a reminder of why he must not adopt an overly attack-minded gameplan. The manager, who has faced criticism for caution, made changes at the start of the second half with his team 1-0 down in the Nations League tie.

Southgate switched from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2, with forward-thinking wing-backs in Reece James and Bukayo Saka, driving No 8s in Conor Gallagher and Jude Bellingham, and Raheem Sterling on alongside Harry Kane up front. Southgate later replaced Gallagher with Mason Mount and Bellingham with Phil Foden.

But England were taken apart by a well-organised, quick-transitioning Hungary to leave them bottom of Nations League Group A3 with two points from four matches and one goal. The mood outside the England camp has shifted sharply – the atmosphere at Molineux was toxic, with chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” towards Southgate – and there are fears over how the end-of-season results and performances will affect the team’s chances at the World Cup, which kicks off on 21 November.

“I think some of the desire to see open play … we saw [against Hungary] that you’ve got to have the balance of a team right,” Southgate said. “With a club, maybe if you’re at the top and you’ve got a long time working with the players, you can play a more expansive game, although even the top teams are bloody good defensively.

“The idea that we can just play lots of attacking players and rely on talent to win matches – it’s not the way it is. It was a reminder to myself in the second half that, OK, you go for a gamble to try to win the game because you think that’s important. But what happened can happen.”

John Stones was sent off in the 82nd minute at 3-0 down and, shortly after, Southgate tried to guard against further damage by introducing Harry Maguire for Saka. There were boos as the centre-half stepped on to the field. The move did not work because England had lost their way and they duly conceded the fourth.

“That [the booing] was directed at me [and not Maguire],” Southgate said. “We’re losing 3-0, I took an attacker off and put a defender on. But we needed to solidify. There’s no way you’re going to win the game and you’ve got to try to protect the players on the pitch. I didn’t view that as a criticism of Harry. He’s actually had three really strong performances with us.”

Harry Maguire replaces Bukayo Saka for England at Molineux
Gareth Southgate says the boos which greeted Harry Maguire’s introduction were directed at a defensive substitution rather than at the player. Photograph: Michael Regan/The FA/Getty Images

A theme of the get-together was Southgate’s belief in his stalwarts. He lavished praise on Kyle Walker for his drive and leadership, ditto Kieran Trippier, and he singled out Mount for his unheralded work against Joshua Kimmich in the 1-1 draw in Germany.

Southgate blooded more inexperienced players including Gallagher, Bellingham, Jarrod Bowen and Tammy Abraham to mixed results. He knew he had to do so to avoid placing too much strain on the first choices and to understand better his backup options. But the impression was that he is more wedded than ever to his regulars.

“We might have got away with it [flogging the first-choice players] but it was a big risk,” Southgate said. “Now you think: ‘God, wish we had done [it].’ But actually that would have been selfish to keep pressure off me rather than do what’s right for England going to a World Cup.

“Hungary are an outstanding team. So you need to have all your big players as we did last September [for the 4-0 win in Budapest] and everything right to be able to win those sorts of games. That’s where we’ve fallen short.”

The worries were numerous on Tuesday night, one of the biggest being how the players failed to cope in front of an impatient crowd. “It’s important that they [the fans] stick with a group of young players,” Southgate said. “You saw the anxiety start to creep in. But also this is the reality of professional football. It’s not all sweetness and light. They’ve got to use those experiences to harden themselves.”

Southgate admitted there was the risk that momentum had been lost. “Without a doubt,” he said. “You can’t say results like Tuesday are good for how people feel. They’re not a nice experience for the players.”

Southgate must consider a period of introspection and pain. He will be powerless to alter the narrative before the September international break when England face Italy and Germany in the Nations League – their final games before the World Cup.

“It’s the downside of international football,” Southgate said. “You are judged on a short period of time – sometimes it can be 10 minutes that changes your life.”

But Southgate was perfectly clear about why things have veered off course and he takes comfort from the knowledge. He is not doubting himself.

Some at the Football Association felt it would have been preferable to have had three fixtures during this break and three matches in September and Southgate said “we probably could have done with only two games” this time.

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Four in 11 days was too much, stretching the players beyond breaking point after a gruelling Premier League season and Southgate, having feared the worst, was unable to get the balance of his selections right. It does not make him or the players unfit for purpose.

“I know how it works,” Southgate said. “I know how quickly opinion changes. You never forget the tough nights and making sure that you register where people were with and against you. But you don’t carry it with you as a scar. I’ll use it as fuel. I’ve done that all my life.”

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