“Failure is a figment of your imagination.” Kobe Bryant had a pretty good line on the importance of trial and error, on failure as the father of success, on disaster on Monday as a signpost to triumph on Friday. To be fair this is perhaps a little easier to embrace as an approach to life when you happen, by an accident of fate, to be Kobe Bryant. Or indeed when failure doesn’t involve a migraine-inducing attempt to break down B-list international opponents at a lukewarm Wembley, while a group of budget fascists riot in the stands and people on social media call you a Waistcoat Fraud. Unfortunately for Gareth Southgate, this was the reality of Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with Hungary.
Still, though, Kobe had a point. Failure in sport is never terminal. Southgate’s tactical gambit, a gameplan devised on the hoof during a two-week international break, was clearly unsuccessful. But one thing is certain. Real failure would be to ignore the impulse, the evidence of the last five years, that inspired it in the first place.
Southgate picked an intriguing XI at Wembley, packing the team with his most technically adept players. It is easy to overlook how profound a departure this is. There have been shifts of shape before, recalibrations of the same essentially cautious machine. Southgate has generally picked seven or eight primarily defensive players. Here he shifted that balance, as England started with five attacking players and a lone 22-year-old holding midfielder with a yen for striding forward with the ball.
This was an attempt to keep the ball in more risky, progressive areas, parts of the pitch where possession is a genuine threat to the opposition rather than a form of passive control. And so England’s roundhead assumed the weeds of a cavalier, fluffed his feathered hat and wobbled off into battle.
In the event the attempt at something new was abandoned after 45 minutes of brittle defence and meandering possession. The midfield was compressed at half-time. Jack Grealish came off with an hour gone. Afterwards Southgate spoke about England’s failure to stifle the (infamous, notorious) Hungarian counterattack, and about the absence of the strangulating control that had marked their recent period of success.
The fear now is that initial plan will be junked, that Southgate will react like a startled cat and hurtle back under the sofa again. To do so a would be an error of more profound nature. Given the progress to this point, given the hand at his disposal, it is the moment to maintain the courage of those convictions. Fail again. Fail better the same way.
Perhaps the one really positive note for England on Tuesday came with the team-drop an hour before kick-off. Grealish! Sterling! Foden! Kane! Mount! This was Southgate dipping his hand right down into the jam jar and coming up with only sweet stuff.
It is hard to remember, on paper, a more exciting and youthful England midfield and attack. And that note of clarity deserves to be preserved. Simply being able to pick that team, having the players present and ready, is a triumph of the conveyor belt provided by the EFL and Premier League, and of Southgate’s willingness to blood young talent. Poor execution on the night should not be allowed to obscure this.
So what did go wrong? England looked off from the first minute. Hungary crowded the centre of midfield 40 yards from their own goal and repeatedly disturbed England’s possession. Harry Kane dropped deep and looked to turn, as he does, but found himself followed by the nearest red shirt and hustled out of his stride. It was only matter of time before someone did this. It was also hugely frustrating. A team packed with between-the-lines talent does not need its centre-forward clogging that space. Kane is good at doing this. It has added to his effectiveness as his mobility has diminished. But someone in this England group needs to have the authority to direct the captain when he’s calling the wrong play. Luke Shaw delivered a total of 13 crosses at Wembley. Take the hint, H.
Otherwise England lacked intensity. Hungary ran hard, pressed effectively and made every physical collision a painful experience. England lost their patterns. Kyle Walker played 17 long passes over 90 minutes. Despite fielding a team of scalpels, this is as blunt as England have looked in some time.
They weren’t helped by both attacking pillars of the past three years carrying their horrible club form into an England shirt. Raheem Sterling, like Kane, also looked lost. And Southgate is right to question with this selection whether Kane-Sterling will remain England’s chief route to goal, if the road to Qatar really is about trying to nudge the same structure on another notch.
The challenge, of course, is to make this work in practice and under pressure. It is no secret Southgate is better as a defensive technician. What we saw at Wembley was a coach outside his comfort zone, a wallflower attempting to dance. This is not to say he can’t learn or find a way.
Southgate seems increasingly preoccupied with the methods of Pep Guardiola, whose Manchester City team provided five starting players at Wembley. It is often overlooked that Guardiola is also, above all, a defensive coach, albeit one who kills the opposition at source by coaching brilliant technical players to control the ball, the space, the press. By contrast Southgate’s attempt to insert Phil Foden’s ball-playing craft into that central area looked callow and undercooked, not to mention a heavy burden on Foden’s shoulders.
The fear is Southgate will once again retreat from the urge to attack, as he did after the flurry of goals (for and against) in the months before Covid-19 hit. That England team also had a more progressive central midfield, an experiment seen for the final time in the 4-0 dead rubber Nations League defeat of Iceland, an intriguing little glimpse of an England team that might have taken the field at last summer’s Euros.
This time around Southgate must find the will to persevere. He has said the reason he couldn’t experiment with his team during Euro 2020 was a lack of time to groove those tactical variations. Well, England have a year until Qatar 2022, should they get there. And really this goes to the heart of what international football is for.
This England generation has already succeeded, twice, by playing conservatively. What more is there to be gained from doing so again? Southgate has a fine hand of attacking talent. International football is, at bottom, a celebration of talent, of the systems that created these players.
England have it in them to succeed this way now, to attempt a game that has more risk, more grace notes, a higher ceiling. It will involve some wrong turns along the way, perhaps even a complete derailing at the journey’s end. But this is not the moment to turn back.