For an illustration of the problems Gareth Southgate faced for this end of the Nations League season programme, why he feared a slap, which duly arrived against Hungary on Saturday night, you have to start from the back.
The England manager named a squad for the four matches which contained 11 defenders, including six specialist centre-halves, with the versatile Kyle Walker seen as a seventh in a back-three. More than enough, surely?
Southgate lost one of them straight away – Ben White withdrew through injury – as it appeared Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guéhi would not be fit enough to start in Budapest or the second game, against Germany in Munich on Tuesday night.
Let’s move on to the remaining four options. John Stones returned from injury for Manchester City on the final day of the Premier League season on May 22 and he was not 100 per cent for Hungary, while Harry Maguire – who has struggled desperately for form – is returned to Manchester United’s starting XI on the same day after a layoff.
Walker last played for City on May 4 through injury, although he was an unused substitute for them on the final day, which leaves Conor Coady alone among centre-backs to finish the season properly of the club.
Southgate didn’t want to launch Stones in Budapest, perhaps with an eye on Germany, and – understandably – also didn’t want to play Maguire and Coady as a central defensive pair for fear their lack of pace not be exposed. And so he went with them plus Walker in a three. It was pretty much his only option, although it didn’t seem ideal.
“We knew that with centre-backs trying to navigate those first two games while Fik and Marc are out, we probably had to use Kyle Walker as centre-back,” Southgate said.
Meanwhile, the hole in the left rear is burning. Ben Chilwell is out of form, having returned from a six-month knee ligament layoff on the final day for Chelsea as an 89th-minute substitute, and Luke Shaw is also injured. Kieran Trippier, who can offer an option on the left, made his first start for Newcastle after a three-month absence through injury on the final day.
Southgate debuted James Justin at left-back – a full-back who can play both sides – and on the right he preferred Trent Alexander-Arnold over Reece James. Because between all the mix and matching, and the need to manage players’ minutes, Southgate wanted to experiment a bit and see other things further.
Hence Bukayo Saka at left-back in the second half; he replaced Justin and had a few good times. Hence Jude Bellingham as one of two midfielders in the 3-4-3 system, which has had mixed results. Hence Jarrod Bowen on the right of attack for his debut; he was forceful and direct, even if his finish was poor.
Southgate says he wants to go deep in the Nations League, but the fledgling competition provides the only fixtures he has ahead of the start of the World Cup in Qatar on November 21. After Germany, it’s Italy on Saturday and Hungary the following Tuesday (both at Molineux). Then come the return matches with Italy and Germany on September 23 and 26. That’s it. If it has to be a choice between necessary adjustments for the World Cup and advancement in the Nations League, there is no other choice.
Alexander-Arnold and Justin struggled defensively in Budapest, with the former brought down when he was substituted just after the hour mark. England left spaces behind both players – in which Hungary replied – and they worked to create the control platform.
Bellingham and Declan Rice were far behind the front three and it was all frustrating and disjointed, England largely passive until Dominik Szoboszlai scored what proved to be the game’s only goal from the penalty spot in the 66th minute. Southgate’s side were more pressing afterwards and on another day they might have equalized. Again, Hungary should have scored a second goal in the 81st minute when András Schäfer fired high.
“I knew going into that four-game block you were running the risk of some results that could hurt,” Southgate said. “But I have to look at the bigger picture and ignore the inevitable that comes with defeats and take what I learn from it by going to Qatar. We don’t have any friendlies to try it out so we have to do it. in this type of game.
“We don’t have a 38-game league where you work with the players all the time, so if I don’t try some of them in those kinds of games, we’ll flog the team that’s been more consistent and we know everything and they fade at the end of those four games anyway.Or we try to balance it out by putting some players with others with experience.
After a streak of 18 wins from 22 matches and just one defeat – against Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 final – it was a reality check, though Southgate is hardly blind to its reality . The timing of these matches and their volume seem odd and Southgate pointed out that previously England had only played twice in nearly seven months – the friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast in March. Continuity is no friend of any international manager.
Southgate also lamented having “played a couple a little longer than we had hoped” and in extremely hot conditions – a reference, presumably, to Rice and Harry Kane having made it through the 90 minutes. “So it’s not perfect,” he said. The right balance was elusive. Southgate has a lot to solve before Germany.