Hungary Punish Weary England for Jaded Display

Hungary 1–0 England

by Dom Smith

England’s meetings with Hungary in the last year have always been noteworthy, and not always for the right reasons. So it proved again. England lost their longest-ever unbeaten run of 22 matches, falling to a controversial second-half penalty and never looking particularly likely to recover and equalise.

It was a special level of ridiculous that this match had been chosen for Hungary to play behind closed doors. This was punishment for sections of their home support racially abusing some of England’s players in September. But UEFA instead bizarrely allowed 30,000 school children under the age of 14 in to the game for free — yes, offering a spectacle to the next generation who are undeserving of punishment, but also watering down the anti-racism message that behind-closed-doors matches seek to send. Those who this punishment actually impacted: England players and the England fans unable to travel out to attend. These sanctions simply must be better thought through.

Before kick-off Gareth Southgate said it had been a really nice welcome into the stadium by the local school children, and that he didn’t expect a repeat of the ugly scenes witnessed during September’s 4–0 rout. So it was somewhat astonishing that when England players took the knee before kick-off, there was audible booing throughout the ground. Whether they came predominantly from kids briefed by their parents or directly from their guardians sat among them, it was a grim thought and an eery and surreal sound.

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For Jarrod Bowen and James Justin — on from the start for their England debuts — this day was always going to be a memorable one. But it would prove memorable for all the wrong reasons.

England started energetically, and there were no suggestions in the opening exchanges that their 22-match unbeaten run would come under any serious threat here in Budapest. The visitors went about their business professionally — pressing hard, zipping passes between themselves, making 27°C seem like no challenge at all.

Roland Sallai found the gloves of Jordan Pickford, and then Harry Kane tried and failed to curl in a fourth-minute opener. For England, especially with the dynamic Mason Mount and Bowen flanking Kane, pressing was always going to prove fruitful. The West Ham United talisman nearly found the net on his debut when his volley from a Kane knock-down was well blocked by Attila Szalai.

Hungary knew chances against England would be few and far between. When you get them, take them. Loïc Négo played a sumptuous early cross which drifted across the turf and bent round the England defence. It landed in the path of Dominik Szoboszlai, the great hope of Hungarian football. The RB Leipzig attacker was smothered well by Everton’s Pickford, but the ball popped out behind him. It squirmed towards the net at a snail’s pace. Conor Coady showcased his ‘never give up’ attitude, diving in to divert the ball off the line. An early warning for England.

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At the other end, he nodded over from a rare delivery of quality on the night by Trent Alexander-Arnold. The Liverpool full-back just can’t seem to kickstart his international career and was generally poor throughout. His replacement in the second half, Reece James, is usually more reliable for his country but also looked rusty and untidy.

England had come flying out the blocks in the first ten minutes. It is a damning indictment of this lax performance that when they settled into the rhythm of the match it was for the worse not the better. Hungary’s big 6 ft 4 veteran striker Ádám Szalai has been around a bit, it’s fair to say. Still playing for Basel in Switzerland at the age of 34, he had his eye in when he swivelled and struck an audacious volley from almost as far out as the halfway line. Pickford looked desperate. And then calm. He knew the cheeky effort was heading wide. It was, but only just. Another warning.

Not a minute later, Bowen was set free down the right. He hugged the byline as he made his way into the box, but Kane and others had made runs away from rather than towards the former non-league player. His delivery was cleared away, and another nice opening squandered.

Southgate replaced debutant Justin — a nominal right-back playing at left-wing-back — with Bukayo Saka at the break. Saka has been Arsenal’s guiding light this season. He’s more of a goal threat now than he was even last summer when Euro 2020 became his breakout stage. Saka so nearly squeezed England ahead within seconds of the restart, denied following an excellent run by only Péter Gulácsi’s outstretched leg.

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Buoyant Bowen arrowed over from a corner. And by 60 minutes, Southgate had seen enough. John Stones, Jack Grealish and James entered the field of play. Could they unlock the door that had caused England’s starters such problems? Could a switch from 3-4-3 to a back four help to spur them to victory?

Sadly not. Substitute James stole the ball from Zsolt Nagy, but as he fended the attacker from nicking it back, the referee felt he’d unfairly held back the Hungarian midfielder. Penalty Hungary, said Portuguese official Artur Soares Dias. James in hot water a mere minute after his introduction. Szoboszlai slammed the ball into the bottom left corner past Pickford with real conviction. England now had tangible punishment for their disjointed display.

They had just short of half an hour to throw heaven and earth at Marco Rossi’s side in pursuit of an equaliser. Bowen volleyed into the goalkeeper’s gut from Harry Maguire’s arcing ball, and then Jude Bellingham was denied by a block as the ball came bounding out to him invitingly. Coady was getting closer too. From James’s free-kick, his glanced header fell inches wide of the post. His facial expression said it all.

It was clear that England were going to create chances in those closing stages. These are some of the best players from the greatest football league on the planet. But ramping up the pressure is different from trying too hard to force the issue. England did the latter, appearing as one defensive line and one attacking line, abandoning the midfield, lumping the ball forward for the hell of it, and playing into the hands of their time-wasting hosts.

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On 81 minutes, Hungary bombed forward, as England boycotted the entire left side of the pitch. With Southgate’s ‘defence’ at sixes and sevens, Hungary were thinking of twos rather than ones. László Kleinheisler tried to double their lead, denied by Pickford, before András Schäfer blazed the rebound over when it appeared harder to miss than score.

That lifeline allowed Kane to profit from excellent work by Grealish on 89 minutes. The England captain’s snapshot volley was cracked at such a pace that when it hit the outside of the netting, it looked as though it had cannoned into the net for a thunderous leveller. So nearly his 50th for his country. Shades of Raheem Sterling’s optical illusion ‘goal’ against Italy at the 2014 World Cup.

Like that day, England had in fact missed the target and failed to score. And like that day, England ran out of time and ran out of steam in humid conditions.

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