Hungary Hammer England to Pile Pressure on Southgate

England 0–4 Hungary

by Dom Smith at Molineux

In this international break, England have looked everything they hadn’t in the previous three or four years: lethargic, ponderous, out of ideas, and out of luck. Here they looked worse. They looked like they needed a rebuild. Hungary know how to play football. England had four chances this month to show they also know how. They failed each and every time.

The Nations League was a competition growing in respect all the time — until Covid-19 changed all that and made it seem like a pointless nuisance. And there’s the small matter of a World Cup in the middle of the season and the middle of winter to contend with.

His critics will say he should have done better over these four internationals — and they’d be right — but Gareth Southgate was already fighting a losing battle. At the end of a season which started ridiculously early because of last season’s delayed finale, these players should be on holiday. They should be dancing to outrageous music in outrageously baggy t-shirts on outrageously remote islands. And yet if they had gone, when would Southgate get to learn about his team? He wouldn’t. Before this they last played in March. And after it, they play just twice more in September before beginning their World Cup campaign in Qatar in November.

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England will have learned a lot about themselves over the past three games. Even more now. You tend to when you don’t play very well. And so after two points from three very flat matches, and languishing at the bottom of Nations League Group A3, this sold-out affair in the Wolverhampton sun became about one thing above all others: the result.

Unfitting then that it was Hungary who took the lead at Molineux, further enhancing their status as somewhat of a bogey side for Southgate’s team. Dominik Szoboszlai clipped a wide free-kick into the box, which John Stones could only knock back towards his own goal. Roland Sallai controlled and volleyed home with a helping hand by Aaron Ramsdale. Sallai’s second goal against England, following his penalty in the 1–1 draw between these sides in October last year.

Anyone expecting England to feel the heat and to up the tempo was left disappointed. Conor Gallagher made the most of his first appearance this month with a busy and industrious display, dispossessing the Hungarian attackers as they tried to go through the motions. Harry Kane was also up for it, dropping in and linking play as smoothly as he always does. But England were staring at a fourth match without victory in the face. They couldn’t laugh at France’s two points from four games this month if they couldn’t better that record themselves.

The visitors could have piled the pressure on Southgate and his players even more, had Reece James not cleared another Szoboszlai free-kick off the line after Kalvin Phillips had inadvertently helped it on its way. England tried to force the issue, tried to jumpstart themselves. But England looked, as they have done in all four games, as though they would rather be on their holidays. Some played as though their minds were on nothing else.

On a rare foray forward, England nearly profited from a Willi Orbán own goal from Bukayo Saka’s cross, before Saka stretched his neck muscles but could only send a diving header wide.

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These became incidents, if that, when Hungary somehow returned from the dressing room to conjure up the best half they’ve mustered against this England. Substitute Martin Ádám pinched the ball off Phillips, charged towards the box, and squared for Sallai to stab his second and Hungary’s second through Ramsdale to compound matters for Southgate.

There was so much more compounding to come. Within minutes, Hungary had stolen the ball off tactically embarrassing England once more. Ádám teed up Zsolt Nagy, who blasted home. The Hungary fans were huddled away at the top of the Stan Cullis Stand, and they’d long ago silenced the previously well-voiced home support.

The most embarrassing moment of the night was not England’s but substitute Dániel Gazdag’s. He ran back across John Stones off the ball and feigned that Stones had struck him. He’d done nothing of the sort. The referee gave Stones a second yellow, sent him down the tunnel, and England were down to ten men and melting before your very eyes.

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Just to add further insult to cataclysmic injury, Ádám Nagy released the conman. Gazdag clipped the ball over Ramsdale, and Hungary’s bench couldn’t contain it any longer. If humbling England 4­–0 in their own back yard wasn’t an apt moment to dart onto the pitch and join in the celebrations, when was?

A chastening night for England. The first truly shambolic performance of the Southgate era. There have been some good, some bad, some very good, and some very bad. But this was woeful. Injuries and Covid and the want to be tactically adaptable have all played their part, but this was a hodgepodge of players on a pitch, facing a well drilled outfit who actually wanted to be here. This was England’s biggest home defeat in 94 years. And not a Magical Magyar in sight.

No one will be fearing this lot in Brazil or Argentina or Germany. “YOU’RE GETTING SACKED IN THE MORNING”, cried the England fans. The fans who hadn’t already left, that is. He won’t be sacked, of course. Southgate has credit in the bank after a semi-final and a final. But credit can be lost as well as won. Marco Rossi’s Hungary schooled Southgate’s side here. No one will be forgetting this in a hurry.

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