England happy to see end of long season in sight as they face yet another Hungary test

England Manager Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane of England speak to the media during a press conference at The Sir Jack Hayward Training Ground on June 13, 2022 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.

The good news for England manager Gareth Southgate is that Hungary will not be at the World Cup finals in Qatar. Four fixtures against the same opposition, two of them stained by racist abuse of his players, is quite enough in the space of 10 congested months, especially when matches against the Hungarians now act as a clear gauge of England’s diminishing potency.

Last September, Southgate took England to Budapest for a World Cup qualifier. It was their first outing since a historic high, a first major tournament final since the World Cup in 1966, and if the experience in the final of the delayed Euro 2020 had been bittersweet after England lost to Italy on a penalty shoot-out, the display at the Puskas Arena spoke of a continuing upwards trajectory. England scored four second-half goals, and let in none.

After that, the Hungary gauge turns into a barometer of England’s slipping form against stronger nations. They fell behind at home in World Cup qualifying last October, and drew 1-1 thanks to a goal from the defender John Stones. Ten days ago, in a Puskas stadium from which adult spectators were mostly banned because of the abuse last year, Hungary took the lead thanks to another penalty. This time, England had no answer.

Unless Southgate and some weary England players can reverse that pattern against an all-too-familiar Hungary on Tuesday evening at Molineux, they face the very real possibility of relegation from the Nations League’s top tier.

That in itself would be a relatively minor setback. The principal aim of this month’s matches and September’s two games in Nations League Group A3 has been to finesse tactics and personnel for Qatar 2022, a tournament in which Southgate has a high standard to maintain.

He is approaching six years in the job and so far he has achieved England’s best showing at a World Cup in 28 years – the semi-finals at Russia 2018 – and their finest ever performance at a European championship.

A losing semi; then a losing final. Southgate is well aware there is only one available podium finish after that which can be interpreted as concrete progress – a gold medal at the next major tournament.

He is typically candid about the pressure that creates. “I won’t outstay my welcome,” he said after England had followed up the loss in Hungary with a 1-1 draw against Germany.

When those matches were followed by Saturday’s goalless draw with Italy he felt he had justify his choice of a more experimental side. “I didn’t want to keep rolling out the same team [simply] because a win might take pressure off my shoulders,” he explained in what was also a tacit acknowledgement that there are areas of his squad where there is a significant gap between those he banks on and the back-ups.

Above all, at centre-forward, where Harry Kane’s importance becomes more conspicuous as England chase a first goal from open play in 280 minutes of competitive football. Kane converted a penalty to earn the draw with Germany, marking his 50th England goal.

The burden of any England manager is to be judged according to the standards set at the top of the Premier League. As Southgate was fielding questions on Monday about the recent drought of goals, the two leading clubs in English football were unveiling or announcing the signings of exciting young centre-forwards, with Erling Haaland, 21, presented at Manchester City, and 22-year-old Darwin Nunez completing his transfer from Benfica to Liverpool.

Between them, these starlets have already scored 29 goals in 30 Champions League matches. Kane’s understudies for England – the likes of Tammy Abraham, Ollie Watkins, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin – are not with clubs involved in club football’s leading competition.

Nor will Manchester United be in the Champions League next season and Southgate has indicated that United’s Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho have work to do to be on the plane to Qatar.

He also nurses concerns about how close to City’s best XI Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling will be in the coming season, although if they are in and out of Pep Guardiola’s team as it accommodates Haaland, there may also be some benefits for England.

The calendar from August to mid-November, when pre-World Cup preparation begins, will be packed and exhausting for the best club footballers. If the often drab Nations League two weeks has reminded of anything, it is that most of England’s players are in need of a proper summer rest.

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