England 0 Hungary 4
Gareth Southgate said he would relish a crowd inside Molineux only for that crowd to turn on him with chants of “you don’t know what you are doing” amid angry boos as England were taken apart by Hungary and suffered their heaviest home defeat since 1928.
It was, undeniably, the worst performance of Southgate’s six years and 74 matches as England manager and it was all the more troubling given it comes as he runs out of time to prepare for the World Cup. England were chaotic, disorganised, dishevelled and lost all shape and it was summed up as they were also reduced to 10-men when John Stones was sent off. Harry Maguire came on and the boos were ever more angry.
It means that for the first time in their history England are staring at relegation. The Nations League might not be taken seriously by some, might be regarded as glorified friendlies, but this was disturbingly embarrassing.
England have lost home and away to Hungary, ranked 40th in the world, are bottom of their Nations League group with just two points and have not scored a goal from open play in six hours of football and just did not look like scoring here.
There will be excuses about the long season, about fatigue, about this being a game too far and there is some validity but this is England and the spotlight is brutal and Southgate knows the criticism will be also.
England fell behind to a goal that would have brought a shudder to Southgate. Kalvin Phillips needlessly conceded a free-kick, after Harry Kane had needlessly conceded possession, with Adam Lang easily beating John Stones to head the ball back across the penalty area where it was met by Roland Sallai. With a piece of neat control on his thigh his half-volley ricocheted of Aaron Ramsdale’s outstretched arm and into the net.
It punctured England’s positive start. They had come out as if stung; as if in need of making a point after the torpor against Italy at the weekend. There was more purpose and there was almost a goal as Kane and Reece James combined with the latter’s cross being met by Jarrod Bowen only for his header to be hooked away by Zsolt Nagy. But the goal shook them.
Southgate stuck with a back-four and that does not seem to be the way he wants to go with England while using James at left-back also felt it might be a role he was auditioning for on a more regular basis. Given the strength on the other flank – with Kyle Walker and Trent Alexander-Arnold – then James, who has played at left-back for Chelsea, might be moved across permanently.
After this there are just two more games, two more Nations League ties – away to Italy and home to Germany in September – before England head to the World Cup and there was more concern for Southgate from another free-kick, whipped in by Dominik Szoboszlai which had to be headed off the line by James after being inadvertently flicked goalwards by Phillips.
England were struggling. There was a sense of panic and they needed a response and almost found it when Willi Orban cut out Bukayo Saka’s cross after Kane led a counter-attack but directed his diving header at his own goalkeeper, Denes Dibusz, who reacted quickly to push it away. Still England retained possession and from another cross Jude Bellingham headed wide.
But it had been a ragged, worryingly vulnerable half. England had conceded far too many free-kicks and had looked fragile from them while they had not threatened to overwhelm Hungary who sat in with a defensive five that obviously made them hard to break down. But England could only look at themselves for being behind. This was just not good enough. They certainly looked the less organised team.
There had been a sense of euphoria, of excitement, among the crowd before kick-off but by now they were subdued and restless and as England walked off at half-time there was an inevitable smattering of boos. There needed to be a response.
It was Raheem Sterling who Southgate turned to, replacing Bowen. But more significant was a change of formation. So much for wanting to persist with a back-four as the back-three returned and James reverted to the right. Soon after, Conor Gallagher also gave way and it was not a night when he had pressed his case for inclusion.
But still England only flickered as passes were over-hit and Southgate rolled the dice again. After bringing on Mason Mount he turned to Phil Foden having expressed concern that he was struggling to recover from Covid. There was an air of desperation in that as the boos became more frequent and the unrest grew.
It grew even more as Hungary scored again and once more Phillips was at fault as he hesitated and was outmuscled by substitute Martin Adam who powered on and picked out Sallai. Walker desperately tried to cover but Sallai stabbed the ball past Ramsdale.
England had to respond and after Foden shot narrowly wide Kane twisted to reach a cross with his header rebounding back off the crossbar. Instead it was Hungary who scored again as they broke with Adam laying the ball back to Zsolt Nagy who struck a superb shot that caught out Ramsdale. England were stunned but Hungary were not finished with substitute Daniel Gazdag running through, as Maguire stood, before dinking the ball over Ramsdale. Incredible. The players did not even dare try and acknowledge the fans as they trudged off.