England struggled to get out of first gear at Wembley tonight, drawing 1-1 with Hungary. On a night marred by crowd trouble in the Hungarian end, Gareth Southgates’s attacking set-up struggled to break down a resolute defensive effort from the visitors. Southgate’s decision to name both Phil Foden and Mason Mount in midfield was a brave one, but his side often looked creatively bereft on a tricky night in the capital.
England started the first half tentatively, but looked comfortable. John Stones was England’s main outlet, tasked with carrying the ball up from defence into midfield while Hungary sat deep. Jack Grealish looked a constant threat on the left flank, and Marco Rossi’s side struggled to cope with him in the early minutes. The Manchester City man poked an intelligent pass in between two defenders to Harry Kane, but the captain could not bring the ball under control. A wonderful one-two saw Grealish backheel it to Luke Shaw, who crossed for Kane to slide in and put just wide.
Hungary registered an early warning when a Dominik Szoboszlai pass was sent careering over the bar by Roland Sallai. England continued to dominate the play, until Shaw was penalised for a high boot on Loic Nego in the penalty area. The Manchester United left back escaped further punishment, but Sallai confidently buried the penalty, sending Jordan Pickford the wrong way.
England struggled to re-establish themselves initially, looking laboured as Hungary closed ranks and defended compactly. Gareth Southgate’s side were enjoying very little success trying to play balls over the top for the forwards, but their fortunes would turn on a Phil Foden free kick. The midfielder whipped the ball in from wide-right, where it ricocheted off a Hungarian arm and found his City teammate John Stones, who slotted it home for the equaliser. Foden had a chance to repeat the trick from the same area, but this time he could only find the hands of goalkeeper Peter Gulasci.
The second half was more of the same, with the away side happy to let their hosts play in front of them, knowing they lacked the edge needed to break the lines. Raheem Sterling sent a wide ball out of play in search of Harry Kane, before faring better with a cross that was eventually cleared after causing problems. Kane sent a speculative shot into Gulasci’s gloves from distance, while Stones nodded wide from a corner in search of an unlikely brace.
Hungary offered little going forward, looking content to take a face-saving draw after only registering a single win in their last eight games. Despite having the more highly-regarded players, England did not play like the sum of their parts. The absence of Kalvin Phillips alongside Declan Rice in midfield left the Three Lions lacking control in the centre of the pitch, Foden and Mason Mount as the twin-eights seemed to do more to stifle their respective creativities than enhance them. Kane cut a lonely figure up top at times, a victim of his teammates inability to find him, and some lax finishing when the ball did reach him. His nadir came when he ballooned a gilt-edged chance over the bar, after some great work from Bukayo Saka. The fact the Tottenham Hotspur striker was offside will offer little comfort after a desperately poor finish.
Jack Grealish was England’s greatest hope for an hour, his clever runs and close-control sending Hungary’s defenders scrambling on a number of occasions. Which meant that Southgate’s decision to swap him for Saka was a baffling one. Given the fact that, beyond the assist, Foden had done very little and Mount had similarly laboured, perhaps a central midfield switch would have been more prudent.
Of course it is not always easy to beat a team that has come to your ground to stifle you, and Hungary did this very effectively for the most part. The visitors were well-organised and executed their defensive game-plan to stifle England’s strengths. But Southgate’s side will face much sterner tests than this if they are to dream of another major tournament final, and there are lessons to be learned from this evening. Even against weaker sides, and make no mistake the fourth-placed team in the group should be considered weaker, having the more illustrious players on the pitch is no guarantee of success. The 4-3-3 with two attack-minded midfielders looked unbalanced, and did little to use the likes of Kane, Foden, Mount and others to the best of their abilities.
Of course a draw at Wembley tonight is no disaster, as qualification is already all-but secured. But while this result will be swiftly forgotten, the lessons from it shouldn’t be. Putting an assortment of Premier League and Champions League winners on the field, alongside the great and the good from other top teams, is not always enough. You need the tactical nous and balance to get the most out of those players. That is what was lacking in this England performance.
BETFRED ODDS: England to win the World Cup: 7/1