Ouh, it quickly degenerated. It was a disturbing and deeply toxic night for Gareth Southgate and his England players, but primarily of course for Southgate himself, who will now find not just his feet but his whole weary body held in the fire of furious public opinion.
England came to Molineux aiming to cap off this silly and exhausted Nations League season with victory, a sense of renewed momentum. What they got was 90 minutes of pain, lactic acid, bruising and a feeling, in the middle of it all, a feeling that something was starting to fade from their sight.
When Southgate entered the pitch at 90 minutes he was angrily booed from all corners. There were cries of real rage, of betrayal. This has, of course, been the backdrop for much of the past year. Southgate is England’s most successful manager of the modern era. Southgate is a decent, hard-working guy. Southgate has, by all accounts, led England with flying colors.
But England fans don’t like Southgate, and even without a stick to beat him, Southgate was beaten. Even without any trace of defeat, only success, it was called a failure. Even on a streak of near-constant wins, goals, golden moments, the England manager has been cast as an impostor and killjoy.
Well, the audience got what they wanted here. Finally meat, substance, a true crime to accuse the culprit of. The defeat against Hungary could be avoided. A 4-0 home thrashing by Hungary, in which England simply disintegrated, is something else entirely. It was a truly dismal performance to cap off an eleven-day odyssey that now reads: played four, lost two, shot two, scored one (Kane, pen).
All teams, all sports entities are a shared act of will, of spirit, of wanting it to work. And in the second half, England simply evaporated, a team with no resistance, no coherent sense of themselves. It was almost comical at times. As Hungary’s third goal was rammed into the bottom corner of the England net by Zsolt Nagy, it was met with a delirious roar from away fans in the far stand. And the rest of Molineux with boos, insults, incoherent rages, and you said to yourself, well at least it couldn’t get worse.
It turns out: yes, it could. Two minutes later England were down to just 10 men, with John Stones sent off for an accidental elbow to the face. Surely now we are hitting rock bottom. But no! With six minutes remaining, 3-0 down, Southgate took off Bukayo Saka and sent – oh no, Gareth, really, no – Harry Maguire, into another wave of exasperated fury.
And Southgate will, of course, face plenty of abuse and punditry gutting in the coming days. This was already happening and England had only lost once in the last 18 months. People will say that he should leave now, that he deserves no patience, no leeway, no sympathy, that the first drop is the last drop.
But an oddity here at the end was that even though Southgate was booed, the players were cheered off the pitch. The same players who didn’t look like they wanted to participate in those games and played as if they weren’t. It is of course up to the manager to take care of this. But who among these players has played at an acceptable level here? Reece James? Marc Guehi? Someone else? Kane tried and never stopped running, but sometimes he looked so steamy with fatigue that he might as well have spent the second half in a nightcap and pajamas. Kalvin Phillips was way below his best. Jude Bellingham looked like he was, an 18 year old. Conor Gallagher loosely scuffled. No one in a white shirt had stardust, no sense of vigor.
Stones had a terrible night, bullied and ragged by the incredibly level-headed Adam Szalai, who rolled around the pitch like a Roman siege tower bouncing off the white shirts, finding passes.
Szalai has big feet and a thirst for contact, a man with a career as a cult shadow hero in the Premier League that never quite happened. How, you wondered, did he never play for Everton? The slight irony here is that Southgate did what it was told.
England played a 4-3-3 with one starting midfielder, with exciting young players on the pitch. They also started well, then simply fell apart when Hungary took the lead with terrible defending.
After 23 minutes there was already screaming, shouting and roaring, outrage, as England slotted the ball past a packed Hungary midfield.
does this help? Is it deserved? But England also found a new kind of problem in these games, weariness on the ball, an old inherent sense of playing through boggy substance, midfielders unable to turn with the ball, always playing in the wrong meaning.
There were changes at halftime. Southgate moved to a 3-5-2. England got worse. Sometimes they seemed spectral, a vanishing team. And maybe there was another lesson here.
If you ask for something enough times: you just might get it.