Italy, the champions of Europe and conquerors of England, failed to beat Bulgaria at home on Thursday. Maybe football isn’t as straightforward as some people think.
Gareth Southgate and England, meanwhile, have a 100 per cent World Cup qualifying record and could start thinking about a place in the Qatar final in the winter of 2022.
The encouraging thing about this group of English players is that they are fundamentally talented. Even the most determined miser can’t deny that.
England defeated Hungary 4-0 on Thursday with four goals in a dominant second half
Conversations and discussions about the manager and his tactics will always be there. When was this not the case in England?
For a country that has won as many major trophies as Greece, Czechoslovakia and Portugal, there is an awful lot to expect. This is fueling, at least in part, recent criticism.
So this was a timely reminder of what the current England team is capable of.
Largely impotent during a first half, in which they were unable to fight their way through a Hungarian team determined to remain resolutely in their own half, they unleashed when Raheem Sterling scored their first goal early in the second period .
The pace of the Three Lions proved too much for the hosts as Raheem Sterling opened the scoring
It was the speed that did it in the end. It was not Southgate’s tactics or instructions. It was just the speed of English football.
After the rest they moved the ball faster and with more sharpness. Once they managed that and scored the opening goal, they clicked into a rhythm and the Hungarian resistance fell apart. That’s how the psychology of football often works.
There was much talk about the home crowd at the Puskas Stadium, but that also turned out to be a lure.
Supporters need their team to do something that creates an atmosphere. In Budapest, Hungary gave their fans nothing and in return locals threw paper cups at England players after scoring and monkey chants to some of the visiting substitutes. We’re going to hear more about that.
In defending his pre-match tactical approach, Southgate spoke of his team’s comfort in possession and the way his England likes to build the game from front to back. That was all clear here.
Creating scoring opportunities is something they sometimes find less easy. That remains a challenge, especially against the really good teams. It was in this game for a while too.
Here the challenge was known for a game of this type. Hungary earned two good draws against Germany and France in this stadium in the summer, but did not get there by being expansive. At halftime they struck their opponents and that was clearly the plan.
Creating scoring opportunities remains a challenge for England
As such, possession was not a problem for England. They had pockets of it. The problem was to find a passage.
That was a puzzle that lasted until half-time but became a memory when Sterling scored, forcing Hungary to effectively enter the game.
Early on, with Jack Grealish and Sterling lively on either side of Harry Kane, there were grounds for optimism as England expanded the home side across the width of the pitch. Looking at England in the long run – to the World Cup and beyond – this still feels like the way forward and in the end it was definitely here. When Southgate’s team gets the ball in wide areas with overload from the midfield and fullback, they are most dangerous.
It was football like this that brought England such success against the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark and, early in the summer, Italy.
It was absent here for the rest for a long time. It’s never a good sign when Kane falls deep down in search of the ball and sometimes he left footprints here in the center circle.
Harry Kane found himself having to sink deep in the first half, but it couldn’t last
Gareth Southgate believes in his system and tactics and will feel justified by the backlog
But before long, it was right-back Kyle Walker who signaled a change of pace early in the second half. His pass to Kane went over the grass perfectly and the captain should have scored.
The first goal was then reminiscent of the summer. A counterattack, a dashing overlap by Mason Mount and a retreat sent by Sterling. Great football and that was the game.
Hungary was not good enough to get back in. Perhaps the home side should have been more ambitious from the start. Maybe that would have involved the home fans.
Here, those questions were for someone other than Southgate. The English manager believes in what he is doing and will not change. However, he is also human, so he will feel justified by this achievement and this score.
England is a very good side in the making. Tactics and systems influence that, but only to a certain extent.