Turgid England Stifled by Much-Improved Hungary

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England 1-1 Hungary

  • It was a case of two points dropped for England as they only managed a 1-1 draw with Hungary
  • England still lead the group after Wembley stalemate but only by three points

This was a night of halted momentum. England’s 21-match winning run in home qualifiers is no longer. Harry Kane’s run of scoring in 15 consecutive qualifiers is no longer. And Gareth Southgate’s surprise decision to pick two attackers in a midfield-three could well now be a thing of the past as well. Hungary came to disrupt — and England let them do just that.

Following his side’s last-gasp draw with England last month, Poland manager Paulo Sousa said recently that he feels England play similar football to a side managed by Pep Guardiola. He gushed about how the Three Lions’ style is so atypical of an English side. But while his team could still finish above England in the World Cup qualifying group and Hungary cannot, it was tonight’s visitors to Wembley who looked every bit as well-groomed in their positioning and as united in their pressing as peak England.

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The home side were never dreadful in this match, but they were never assured or settled either. When Luke Shaw clumsily cleared the ball a matter of centimetres away from Loïc Négo’s face, the subsequent slotted penalty from Freiburg’s Roland Sallai set up a nervy encounter at the National Stadium. John Stones stabbed in from close range to level things up, yet England never truly pushed on. They might have nicked the game at any point in the second period, but would it have been truly merited? Was this a vintage display from Southgate’s capable young side?

It wasn’t. It was a stodgy performance — the sort of display that exemplifies how crucial it is to do the basics right in this sport. Place your passes just ahead of your teammates’ feet. Make sure your crosses beat the first man. Communicate with your teammate to avoid confusion. England did confuse themselves at times; Hungary certainly confused them.

Never before have England kept as many clean-sheets in a calendar year as the 12 they’ve clocked up this year. They’ll have to wait until next month to add to that count. Sallai’s penalty was composed and precise. Shaw had been neither of those as he panicked and slashed the ball away from right under Négo’s nose. England not only had work to do, they now had a deficit to cut.

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To their credit, it only took them 13 minutes to do so. Jack Grealish cantered elegantly into the Hungarian melee, hoping, expecting, to be clipped on the foot and heaved to the floor. Down he went, presenting England with an attractive chance to cross. Phil Foden’s low delivery caused the otherwise so disciplined Hungarian defence all sorts of problems. A deflection somewhere or other helped the ball to the back post. To the delight of the Wembley crowd, only John Stones and Raheem Sterling lurked in attention.

Stones caressed the ball into the net with a guided left-foot finish, punching the air as he made the most of his first England goal since a brace against Panama at the 2018 World Cup. From Sterling’s header, Southgate’s outfit came close to stealing the lead as the first half drew to a close. Péter Gulácsi — who had a shocker by his high standards as England ran riot in Budapest last month — pushed the ball away though. Sterling’s rebound was studded awkwardly wide and brought England nothing but a higher level to find in the second half.

Higher was to come. But not a higher level for England — a Hungary side playing higher up the pitch than in the first 45. Southgate’s assessment was that his players “gave unusual passes away.” No kidding. At one moment or another, England had the following operating in the final third of the pitch: Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka, Tammy Abraham and Ollie Watkins. No-one had the answer to the visitors’ tightly packed defence. Marco Rossi had done his homework since England blitzed his side in the second half of last month’s non-contest.

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Filip Holender’s curled effort which flew just over Jordan Pickford’s far post epitomised England’s performance. It was a Hungary chance born from an unforced error by the hosts. Bukayo Saka was tackled in an area of the pitch where you must be oh-so-careful. He wasn’t, and England as a collective weren’t. A draw at home to B-list opposition will feel like a defeat to the side ranked third in the world.

Speaking to EnglandFootball.org after the match, Tyrone Mings was critical of the team’s individual displays. “I don’t think we as individuals performed well enough,” admitted the Aston Villa centre-back. “I think tactics are a very small part of winning and losing a game. We have to perform to the standards that we’ve performed to in the past. We have to achieve those heights. Our individual performances I don’t think were there tonight, so we’re disappointed.”

Mings was complimentary of the visitors, saying: “Hungary are a good side and made it difficult for us. They of course gained a point, and we certainly feel like we dropped two. I don’t think we’ve done enough to win the game.”

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Ultimately, this was, though, another match to add to the depressingly long list of England games under Gareth Southgate marred by racist abuse. Sections of the 800-strong Hungarian support clashed with police in the stands, and one fan was arrested for racially abusing a steward. Afterwards, Rossi refused to answer questions on whether some Hungary fans had let their country down again. More fines will no doubt be sanctioned.

On the other side of the advertising hoarding, England players lacked the cutting edge they so often show these days. For the first time since the Magical Magyars shocked the world with their 6-3 win over England in 1953, Hungary took a positive result home from their trip to Wembley. There wasn’t a Ferenc Puskás in sight, this time — no-one to light up this World Cup qualifier. 1-1 felt about right.

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