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Matt Maher: Under-achieving England calls do not stand up to scrutiny

Gareth Southgate had one last question to answer and it felt rather pertinent.

Hungary's Zsolt Nagy, second right, jubilates after scoring his sides third goal during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between England and Hungary at the Molineux stadium in Wolverhampton, England, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Super).
Hungary's Zsolt Nagy, second right, jubilates after scoring his sides third goal during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between England and Hungary at the Molineux stadium in Wolverhampton, England, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Super).

For 10 minutes in the media suite at Molineux the England boss had talked in typically considered fashion about the most painful night of his reign, the core message being that while there could be no disguising the embarrassment of a 4-0 defeat to Hungary, the bigger picture remains all important.

Finally Southgate was asked, essentially, whether his players are all they are cracked up to be?

His answer was as diplomatic as you would expect, explaining how the team he selected at Molineux had suffered from a lack of experience in its ranks.

And yet the subject of England’s quality feels like one worth exploring. That is not to suggest for a moment Southgate should not be under increased scrutiny after the nation’s heaviest home defeat for 94 years. No Three Lions boss could expect anything else. There are no circumstances where losing to Hungary by any scoreline, let along an historic one, is going to be acceptable.

A key part of the recent narrative, however, is Southgate is under- achieving with a pool of players who should be comfortably brushing opponents aside and confirming their status as World Cup favourites. It does not stand up to scrutiny.

While England’s current crop are undoubtedly talented and have already proven their capability of going far in major tournaments, it is also true their quality is unevenly spread.

In Harry Kane, Southgate has a truly world-class striker and in Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka no shortage of options to support him.

It is a rather different story further back in the team, where England lack a top-class centre-half and, you might argue, a really outstanding central midfielder, capable of dictating the tempo of a match in the manner Joshua Kimmich, for example, can do for Germany.

International managers must deal with the cards they are dealt. Southgate’s hand is stronger than most and his detractors understandably look at the attacking players at his disposal and argue he does not know how to make best use of them.

On the flip side, the key to success in international management can often be how well you cover the deficiencies in your team and Southgate can claim to have done a pretty good job of that at the last two major tournaments. When assessing his strengths and weaknesses, having the best record of any England manager bar the one who actually won something remains the biggest tick in his favour. His ‘negative’ tactics might be better termed pragmatic. Frequently, they have been effective too.

“I think the idea we can play lots of attacking players and rely on talent to win matches: it’s not the way it is,” said Southgate in one of his more telling comments the aftermath of Tuesday.

Viewing the quality of the national team as being better than it actually is has been a common tendency among supporters since 1966. Ask yourself, is the current group better than the one containing Campbell, Terry, Gerrard, Scholes, Rooney and Beckham (to name just six) which started the quarter-final defeat to Portugal at Euro 2004?

That team had big names but lacked balance. Southgate would argue he has on the whole done rather better in finding the latter with his selections, Tuesday night being an alarming exception.

It has been some time since international football could be classed as the top level of the sport, yet it is different to the club game and requires some adaptation, as the likes of Conor Gallagher and Jarrod Bowen perhaps discovered in the last fortnight.

Just as common as bigging up the Three Lions is playing down the opposition. Hungary are no world-beaters but the fact they are top of a Nations League group also containing Germany and Italy suggests they are no slouches either. It is also instructive of the differing priorities involving each team. Marco Rossi’s men did not qualify for the World Cup, meaning the past fortnight was their biggest of the year. On Tuesday night, it showed.

Though Southgate might not have said it explicitly, the clear message was the Nations League did not matter for England. Perhaps that was a misjudgment. Stressing the need to manage playing time and talk of fatigue may well have seeped down into the mentality of the squad.

The FA are prepared to view Tuesday and the three underwhelming results which preceded it as a freak occurrence. Quite right, too. Southgate has more than enough credit in the bank. It would be a surprise, however, if confidence inside HQ hadn’t been dented just slightly.

Most damaging for Southgate may be the lost goodwill among supporters. For so long the darling of the fans, an increasing number are now calling for his head.

Major tournaments will always be the place managers are judged and for all his previous success, this winter’s World Cup may now be a bigger referendum on Southgate’s reign than anticipated.

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