At last, a hitch in Gareth Southgate’s England masterplan.
The Three Lions were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw by Hungary on Tuesday night to make it two draws in three games for Southgate’s men, with John Stones cancelling out Roland Sallai’s first-half penalty in front of a disappointing Wembley crowd.
It marks a slightly troubling time for England boss Southgate, who is overcoming his first run of patchy form in a qualifying group since taking over the role full-time five years ago this month.
England were frustrated to a draw for the second time in three games against Hungary
Sportsmail looks at the headaches Gareth Southgate (middle) is facing as England boss
Tuesday’s disappointing stalemate at Wembley is not the end of the world for Southgate’s England – the rest of Europe’s elite have suffered similar draws since Euro 2020 and the Three Lions need three points from two games to secure a place at next year’s Qatar World Cup.
But there are problems for Southgate to fix ahead of November’s double-header with Albania and San Marino. Sportsmail analyses what these issues are…
Improve in-game decision making
Gareth Southgate and poor in-game decision making often go hand in hand.
The Three Lions boss was questioned for not doing enough during the game in England’s World Cup and Euro 2020 semi-final and final defeats to Croatia and Italy respectively, with the 51-year-old appearing to freeze in high-profile matches.
Complaints about Southgate’s in-game tactics were also made as recently as last month, when the England boss failed to make a substitution during their qualifying match in Poland as his tired Three Lions stars succumbed to a late equaliser in a 1-1 Warsaw draw.
Southgate’s substitutions and in-game tactics came under question on Tuesday night again
On Tuesday night, the England manager certainly baffled England fans with his second-half substitutions. The home side’s wide players – Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish – enjoyed a lot of joy down the wings in the first-half, but both were taken off after the break as Southgate reverted to a back three.
Come the end of the match, Southgate had moved central midfielders Phil Foden and Mason Mount into the wide roles as wing-backs Bukayo Saka and Luke Shaw struggled to get up the pitch and help out with attacks.
Moving Foden out to the wing was particularly questionable, given the 21-year-old was showing some excellent touches in the middle of the park in the first-half.
Moving the exciting Phil Foden (left) wider with Bukayo Saka (right) as wing-back was baffling
The tactical switch to a 3-4-3 formation saw England create fewer chances towards the end of the match and the game dribbled out to a stalemate. Apart from the goal, the Three Lions barely threatened Peter Gulacsi in the Hungary net – any saves the veteran goalkeeper had to make were rather routine.
Such is the strength of this England team that Southgate’s men are often in control of their own destiny. But the Three Lions have now conceded in three out of their last four matches at Wembley, showing that things often do not go to plan.
Southgate needs to be better at changing the tide when matters go awry.
Don’t give up on Jack so quickly
One of those tactical switches which earned Southgate major criticism was the hauling off of £100million man Grealish on 62 minutes, with Bukayo Saka coming on in his place.
The vast majority of England’s good attacking play in the first-half came via the Manchester City winger, whose direct running and drawing in of defenders causing the visiting Hungary side some defensive issues at Wembley.
Southgate also took Jack Grealish (left) off on 62 minutes when he was England’s bright spark
Grealish’s threat could be seen early on as he released the underlapping Luke Shaw down the left with a clever flick. Shaw, making one of 12 crosses he produced in the game, squared the ball towards Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling at the back post, with the former prodding the ball wide.
That move was a glimpse as to why Grealish is so useful to this England side, and why Pep Guardiola adopts him in a wider role at the Etihad Stadium.
His direct running towards the middle of the pitch allows full-backs to get around him, while he can link up with talented central players like Mount, Foden and Harry Kane in tight spaces.
Grealish was drawing fouls all over the pitch – with one of them leading to England’s goal
At Euro 2020 Grealish (front) was England’s main man in the latter stages – he is not anymore
Once again, Grealish was the most fouled player on the pitch and that direct running led to the free-kick which led to Stones’ equaliser just before half-time. Taking Grealish off and thereby limiting the amount of set pieces England can take in the final minutes was another reason why Southgate’s call was baffling.
Grealish was England’s go-to man for the final stages of their Euro 2020 matches, albeit as a second-half substitute – but, for some reason, Southgate does not appear to trust the 26-year-old to provide that creative spark at the end of 90-minute World Cup qualifiers.
Get some confident strikers
Southgate himself highlighted England’s poor quality in the final third after the game on Tuesday night. ‘Some of our quality was just really poor,’ the England boss told his post-match press conference.
He added: ‘We were still generally controlling the game but we didn’t really get pressure onto them as much as we have done, certainly as we did in Budapest (when England won 4-0).
England’s Raheem Sterling (second left) and Harry Kane (right) are out of form at club level
‘Having gone behind, I thought a good response to draw level but I don’t think we did quite enough to win the game even though we had more shots, more possession. I don’t think we created the really clear chances to deserve to win the game.’
That lack of creativity and goalscoring threat is no surprise given two of England’s key attacking stars are out of form at club level.
Captain Kane enjoyed another successful tournament campaign at Euro 2020 and scored three goals during the last international break, but his lack of efficiency against Hungary is much more like his current Tottenham displays.
The England No 9 enjoyed just 21 touches of the ball during his 76 minutes on the pitch, before he was hauled off for Tammy Abraham, and produced just one shot on target all game. Kane, meanwhile, is yet to score in six league games Spurs this term.
Kane had just 21 touches of the ball at Wembley on Tuesday – and had just one shot on target
Then there’s his England team-mate Sterling who – like Kane – had a great Euro 2020 campaign but is still a back-up player at Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Against Hungary, Sterling’s lack of confidence was there to see. The Three Lions winger had two chances to fire past Hungary’s Gulacsi in the first-half, but produced a tame header at the first attempt before putting the rebound wide.
Then, in the second-half, the Manchester City winger was put through by Kane but put a feeble attempt at goal straight into the arms of the Hungary shot stopper.
What Southgate needs to do is hope that Sterling and Kane find some sort of form in the four weeks that lie between now and the November internationals.
Sterling (right) looked out of confidence and spurned two good chances against Hungary
The England boss could also look towards Dominic Calvert-Lewin next month after the Everton striker started the season well but has been injured for the past few weeks.
Meanwhile, the likes of Jadon Sancho and Saka impressed against Andorra and are starting to find their feet at Manchester United and Arsenal this season respectively, begging the question why they weren’t given starts from the off on Tuesday.
Decide on best formation
Every Gareth Southgate England squad at major tournaments has been unique in their own regard.
At the 2018 World Cup, Southgate used a 3-5-2 formation that he first started using in the March before the tournament. He stuck with a back three until a few months before Euro 2020, when the 4-2-3-1 formation was unleashed.
When Tuesday night’s line-ups were released for the Hungary game, it hinted that the next evolution of Southgate’s Three Lions team would be a 4-1-4-1 set-up, with Mount, Foden and Grealish fitting alongside Sterling, behind Kane.
Southgate (middle) ripped England’s new 4-1-4-1 formation for an unfamiliar 3-4-3 set-up
The all-out attack set-up showed glimpses of success in the first-half until Southgate ripped up those plans for the final half an hour. A 3-4-3 formation then emerged, a system which looked alien to the England players and few chances came at the end.
Southgate has the right to experiment with various systems in this England team given World Cup qualification is pretty much in the bag and there’s a year to go until the Qatar tournament.
But, then again, there are still only around 10 international matches left for Southgate to test these formations out until the World Cup begins. There’s time, but not a great deal of it.
Fix the pressing problems
After the Hungary match at Wembley, Southgate hinted at potential problems with England’s pressing game during the Wembley stalemate.
The Three Lions boss had reason to be concerned. His side managed just nine interceptions and seven successful tackles all game, with the majority of them coming from England’s defenders.
On this point, Southgate said: ‘It was one of those nights where we started poorly, we didn’t get pressure on them, we gave needless passes away that led to counter-attacks which gives you the feeling you’re stretched.
England made just seven tackles all game against Hungary – including none for Kane (left)
‘It was unusually disjointed. We need to make sure we put it right for next month.’
It was a game where England expected to have most of the possession, which they did, but one surprising element from Hungary’s gameplan was the visitors’ frequent attempts to play out from the back, rather than go long and waste time.
Pressing a defence that is comfortable on the ball is a rare task for an England side in qualifying, who normally dominate smaller teams as the biggest country, in terms of reputation, in the group at this stage.
Tuesday night’s stalemate shows that the Three Lions need to get used to playing against teams who can build from deep and are more comfortable in possession. Victories over the likes of Andorra and San Marino are all well and good, but there needs to be improvement against the better teams.
Southgate (left) hinted at being annoyed at his side’s lack of efficient pressing on Tuesday
It is not the first time Southgate has complained about the lack of efficient pressing from his team. In their last pre-Euro 2020 friendly with Romania, the England boss was livid as his side’s inability to close their defenders down.
‘There is a lot of work to be done on the training ground. We cannot give up the number of chances we did today and expect not to be punished,’ said Southgate after the June friendly.
His England players responded at Euro 2020, they need to do the same now.