The reaction to England’s defeat to Hungary was over the top, but there is a fin de siecle feel about Gareth Southgate in this position.
The #SOUTHGATEOUT brigade didn’t even wait until the final whistle at the end of the Hungary game to make their feelings known. The players had been booed from the pitch at the end of the first half and their performance throughout the second had been significantly worse, so it was probably to be expected. It’s been a long time since an England crowd turned on a manager like this, but it’s been a long time since the national team put in a performance that was quite as pallid and sluggish.
There had been signs of wobbling in the months prior to this match, but draws with Hungary and Poland in World Cup qualifying last autumn barely registered as tremors in the aftermath of Euro 2020 and with qualification for the World Cup finals secured. But the Nations League results – two draws and two defeats from four matches, with only one goal having been scored, and none from open play – have felt like an argument waiting to happen. On the one side, players who’d barely had a rest in the last couple of years were going through the motions in a match that they clearly didn’t want to be playing in the first place. On the other, a crowd who’d paid good money and weren’t prepared to tolerate being so comprehensively outplayed by The Likes Of Hungary.
For all the hyperbole about how this was England’s worst home defeat since the Wembley Wizards of 1928 arrived in London and demolished England 5-1, it is vanishingly unlikely that anything is going to change before November. Gareth Southgate isn’t going to resign five months before a World Cup. The Football Association are not going to sack him on the basis of a couple of poor results – because it is worth remembering that draws with Germany and Italy in successive matches are categorically not poor results – and cause the inevitable upheaval that taking such action could inevitably bring about. Especially not over these matches, at this time of the year, under these circumstances.
So, let’s get the case for the defence out of the way first. The fatigue seemed real and this didn’t only apply to England, either. Neither Germany or Italy looked much more energetic than Southgate’s team. Italy’s collapse in Monchengladbach at the same time that England were capitulating to Hungary wasn’t a much better result for them. And it’s perfectly possible that none of the four starting XIs that Southgate used for these matches will play together at the World Cup finals. If one was to be, it would likely be that which started against Germany. Some might even argue that losing the Hungary match could be a cold wind to blow away some complacency, a cleansing burst of reality for those who may have been starting to get a little giddy ahead of the World Cup finals.
But that’s pretty thin gruel, as defences go, especially when the trajectory of performances hit a baseline of mediocrity and deteriorated from there. Hungary have single-handedly laid out a plan for how to comfortably hold England at bay, and that’s another problem that Southgate now has to overcome. England failed to score a single goal from open play from these four fixtures and created few clear chances beyond hitting the woodwork a couple of times. They’ve long had an issue with creativity, but seldom in recent years has it been as glaring as it has this last couple of weeks. And Southgate’s tactical decisions do continue to baffle at times. There have been plenty of times over the last couple of weeks when my eyes have narrowed and I found myself asking, ‘Wait, what is he doing there?’
There is something of a fin de siècle feeling around Gareth Southgate’s time with England, but it doesn’t have to end in derision. He is England’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, taking them to extra-time in a World Cup semi-final, the semi-finals of this very tournament – remember when the Nations League briefly mattered? – and a penalty shootout in the final of the European Championship. It’s easy to forget how consistently poor England have been over the years. Since 2006, they’ve failed to qualify for Euro 2008, got thumped by Germany in 2010, failed to win a game and were knocked out with a game to spare in 2014 and lost to Iceland in 2016. And all this was before the appointment of Sam Allardyce, which felt like an admission of defeat in itself. England have been utterly transformed over the six years since then, and while Southgate could never be considered solely responsible for this renaissance, to deny that he had a significant role in it would be bunkum too.
But it is probably time that this chapter does draw to a close, quite possibly for the good of all concerned, and the good news here is that the peculiarities of the calendar, and in particular the decision to hold a World Cup finals in the middle of the winter (it’s an ill wind, etc), work in everybody’s favour. With the mounting cycle of hype punctured, Southgate could leave his position after these finals, then take a break ahead of looking for a club job for the following summer. The FA, meanwhile, could begin a process of accession to put a manager in place at the end of the season, with a caretaker minding it until then.
Because the currently building hysteria doesn’t really help anyone. The reflex reaction of the Molineux crowd towards the end of the Hungary game served no useful purpose beyond catharsis, and you wouldn’t bet money on England playing there again, if that’s the reaction they’re going to get when things start going against the team. They may well reply that they wouldn’t want them back after that sort of performance. Such fury, over a match that had clearly already been deemed culturally irrelevant to the 2021/22 season, seemed over the top nevertheless.
And all this, really, is a big part of the problem. For decades, there have been spells when the England team have fallen from favour, usually as a result of poor performances on the pitch, and the result is always toxic. It’ll be little consolation to Gareth Southgate that things are nowhere near as bad for him now as they were Graham Taylor in 1993. This could turn messy quickly, accelerated by social media, and these cycles have previously taken several games to truly build up. England only have two left, against Italy and Germany, to lift their gloomy frame of mind before leaving for the World Cup finals. Players leaving the Wembley pitch to a similar cacophony after the Germany match at the end of September would be a very bad look for the FA indeed.
It’s a situation that can be averted with cool heads all round, but that’s rare in 2022. The reaction of Molineux may have been a little cartoonish, but it echoed rather than opposed the evidence of our own eyes over much of the last couple of weeks. Gareth Southgate can take considerable pride in what’s been achieved over his time with England, and they may yet surprise us at the World Cup finals at the end of the year, but regardless of this it feels as though the time is right for a change of hands. You don’t have to be a member of the #SOUTHGATEOUT brigade to feel that.