Why Were England So Awful This Month?

England failed to win in four consecutive matches for the first time under Southgate. But why? And is it time to panic?

Name a more iconic duo in football than shock England defeats and root-and-branch reviews. If there is one, I’ve not sure I’ve seen it.

There were enough raised voices and enough concern after England limped to a 1–0 defeat in Budapest for a thorough analysis of England’s troubles. It didn’t need one goal in four games and a 4–0 home thumping by the Hungarians for onlookers to demand an inquest into how Gareth Southgate’s team have played themselves so quickly and comprehensively out of public contention for the World Cup trophy.

Such is life. England lost in Budapest, drew to a dominant Germany in Munich, controlled a weak Italy side but only drew at Molineux, and were then thumped at the home of Wolves last Tuesday. The Hungarians handed England their biggest home defeat since the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. There are no words for that.

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To be scrupulous in assessing quite why England were so bad, and quite what it means for their short- and medium-term prospects, an appreciation for the complexities of international football is required. In particular, an appreciation for the unique complexity of this specific international break.

Had Covid not occurred, and were the World Cup not in winter, there would not have been an international break that incorporated four matches in ten days for European nations. But there was indeed a pandemic, and the World Cup does indeed begin in November and end seven days before Christmas. So UEFA — who care about fitting football in, rather than player welfare — squashed this 2022/23 Nations League campaign into space that frankly wasn’t there.

England’s players should have been on holiday. Simple. After a season that was already much more bruising than normal (due to an early start because of the Covid fallout at the end of the previous season) it was surely especially important that elite players get ample rest before next season. Next season being the one scythed in half by a World Cup in the middle of a small desert nation.

Clearly not in the eyes of UEFA, though. Harry Kane started and finished England’s 4–0 humbling by Hungary. It was his 62nd game of the season. Thank goodness it was his last. Though it should really have been something like his 14th day on holiday with his wife Katie and three children, Ivy, Vivienne Jane and Louis. Instead he only gets three weeks off; one of those has just passed.

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The lethargy showed. England’s players looked jaded and shattered and devoid of ideas as they pushed their zombie bodies through two ghastly defeats and two rather nondescript draws. To draw away in Germany is never a bad result, and England then had a measure of control over an admittedly inexperienced Italy side at Molineux. Southgate is unfortunate that those two decent-enough results and performances were bookended by the two Hungary debacles. The first: a stodgy and deserved defeat; the second: a totally merited pummelling. The first of his tenure and the first England defeat by three or more goals since Fabio Capello’s Three Lions wilted in the South African heat when confronted by a young Mesut Özil and a very young Thomas Müller in 2010. Regenerating Germany four, Golden Generation England one.

Player availability is a perennial issue for international managers. The only part that changes is which players are and aren’t available each time they meet up. Phil Foden catching Covid was very untimely, and allowed Southgate only the second half of an already lost encounter against Hungary to see the Manchester City gem in action. By then, there was very little action from anyone in a white shirt. It was all Hungary. “Hungary were very hungry”, said Ashley Cole on Channel 4’s TV coverage — ever the wordsmith.

Trent Alexander-Arnold had departed for his summer break after the Munich trip, and there was no natural left-back in the squad because Luke Shaw was not deemed fit enough and Ben Chilwell deemed not worth risking, considering his horror ACL injury had only allowed him back in time for a cameo for Chelsea on the last day of the season. Jordan Henderson was rested and so not selected. Suddenly a decent number of Southgate’s important players were uninvolved in this camp. It started to feel like yet another international break where the England manager could do little more than just get through the games and hope to come out the other side safely.

With the players all already exhausted and so Southgate’s job partly requiring the monitoring and divvying up of match minutes, a schedule of four games in ten days on top of all that was ridiculous and irresponsible. A tighter schedule than the Qatar World Cup will be — and by quite some distance. So this was another irritating constraint on the England manager’s ability to see what he wanted to see and do what he wanted to do with the team over these four fixtures.

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The final and perhaps most significant limitation on Southgate this month was that after these four matches, England play only twice more before dusting down the inflatable unicorns on a new World Cup campaign. They play away in Milan and host Germany in the Nations League in September. No more friendlies. No more easy victories. No more opportunity to trial and fiddle and fine-tune and experiment with systems and tactics and situations and personnel. This was it.

And it only went to plan if Gareth Southgate is a footballing masochist, or on some sort of mission to deliberately annihilate his reputation. He admitted in Budapest that, in hindsight, he was guilty of being too experimental and not seeing quite enough value in ensuring a positive result to start the month off well. He was right with such introspection. His 3–4–3 got the best of very few of the XI who started. They could have played for 900 rather than 90 minutes and still not scored. The 28°C heat seemingly enough to throw already-tired England off-course.

The Germany match was a valuable test as it pitted England against a European superpower in a packed stadium where the majority of supporters were cheering against England. Hansi Flick has done a magnificent job in quickly and quietly revitalising the German national team after the outgoing Joachim Löw had allowed his 2014 World Cup success to keep him in the role far too long. The team rotted and regressed in their final two years under him. Under Flick everything has started to click back into gear. Quite a ferocious gear. While Hungary were humiliating England, Germany were thrashing Italy 5–2. No apathy for them. And so while losing the possession battle by quite such a margin in Munich was a shame, the number of chances England created against the Germans should and will please Southgate.

A shame they needed a late penalty to save them from a second defeat on the bounce. However, England know to take what they can get from such games. If club football is about repeatable patterns of play and consistency, the international game is about moments. When you get them, be sure to take them. Kane did, and England took a draw home with them…

…Which they matched at Molineux by dominating Italy in possession but never looking good enough to beat Roberto Mancini’s experimental line-up in Wolverhampton. “I think [a draw] was fair on the clear chances created”, Southgate told EnglandFootball.org after the match. And he was right. Possession can be indicative of superior quality — but less so when your opponents create the same number of openings, and when you fail to use the ball to sufficiently outmanoeuvre them. England were better than their Euro conquerors here, but the Italians still deserved their point.

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It was the fourth and final match which turned orange faces red and which has seemed to tilt the balance of Southgate’s reign from broadly supported by his public to broadly opposed by them. I could barely hear myself think in the final 15 minutes of this stunning 4–0 defeat. As England’s paying, baying fans made for a very early exit, there were cries of ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’ and ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’, directed at the England manager.

As one exasperated fan stormed out, he cried ‘F*ck off Southgate, you negative b*stard.’ Supporters calling for the manager’s head five months out from a World Cup have disturbingly short memories and seem to have all-too-quickly forgotten that Southgate took five years to take England to a semi-final and a final — which the England team had previously needed five decades to do.

Yet there is a sense in which Southgate’s over-obsession with experimenting did contribute to this monumental mauling at Molineux. Hungary are much better than their world ranking of 40 suggests, and the majority of their players have had a vastly less taxing season than England’s elite. But even so, they had England’s game-plan — if such a thing were even decipherable — sussed out within minutes. England’s wings were thwarted. England’s midfield was consistently starved of oxygen by their opponents. And England’s defensive errors were to blame for all four goals (Kane, Phillips, Stones and Ramsdale all at fault).

Southgate knew this month that with limited time remaining before Qatar, he would need to juggle winning matches, experimenting, and sharing game time. But this ended up being about experimentation much more so than any other factor. Wrongly so. Learning about your players is crucial, especially now, but it has come at a cost. Southgate wants to be tactically adaptable, but after a certain point he does actually have to pick a formation and ensure it runs smoothly enough to trouble the world’s best teams in Qatar this winter. Southgate has been so eager to be economical in squeezing as much learning out of these four games as possible that he’s ended up learning very little. If personnel or formations change every five minutes, you don’t learn lessons. You get chaos.

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England didn’t have enough experienced players on the pitch against Hungary to ensure that defeat stayed only as defeat. Instead the players buckled as the crowd turned against them and the manager. England were torn apart mercilessly in the second half. Yes they had to go for it once 2–0 down, leaving them exposed. But they did get exposed. It was their’s and Southgate’s job to make sure they didn’t. Instead they recorded their biggest home defeat in 94 years. Only four of England’s 1,034 matches in history were defeats by a larger margin than this. It was a “chastening” night according to Southgate. He is left feeling the heat of the impossible job more intensely than ever before.

Come the World Cup, the England players will be somewhat refreshed, even if a Premier League season will have to pause in order to allow them on the plane. More players will be in form than were this season, as few England players shone this term — those involved in the emotional journey to the Euro 2020 final particularly suffering dips in their levels. The manager will have rested by then too, as well as watched back all four matches from this tough and sobering international break.

Southgate, perhaps wisely, will shift his side’s balance back towards experience. There will be no starts for Fikayo Tomori or Aaron Ramsdale or Jarrod Bowen in Qatar. There will be a slightly older England team, with his more trusted warriors trusted again to go out onto the biggest stage in football and deliver for their country. Expect 3–4–3 tweaked occasionally to 4–2–3–1. Expect continued reliance on Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire, Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling. Expect a double pivot. Expect England to produce better football than they did this month, built on the key pillars of control, clean-sheets, and doing just enough to win matches.

England are unlikely to win the World Cup. Perhaps a quarter-final defeat to France will be their fate. But while there were genuine mitigating circumstances during this month’s matches, these circumstances certainly don’t fully account for England’s torrid month. Neither does the fact star-studded France also drew twice and lost twice.

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Southgate reads international football well. He is right to be flexible, right to be pragmatic, right to seek control of matches. But his team is too defensive. Only if his attack worked like clockwork would his level of tactical conservatism be defensible. And a definitive style of play is a must. All three of England’s opponents this month had detectable styles, had noticeable ways of playing. England still lack that.

Not time to panic. Plenty to ponder. Plenty to correct. And if June is the month when expectations of England were dampened down, who says that is such a bad thing? The last time England were global favourites to win the World Cup, Wayne Rooney was sent off as they converted just a single penalty in a quarter-final shootout defeat to Portugal. The last time they were written off as not standing a chance, they stunned the nation and finished fourth.

But Gareth, seriously: please just pick a formation and stick with it. No team can be expected to juggle 4–3–3, 3–4–3, 3–5–2 and 4–2–3–1 all at once. Your players are humans, not robots — as starkly shown on Tuesday by the Hungarians.

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