Gareth Southgate gave England’s public what it wanted against Hungary and was rewarded with a deadly dull display greeted with a wave of indifference from a discontented Wembley gallery.
On a night that got off to the worst of starts as Hungarian fans jeered the England players taking the knee before clashing violently with police and stewards, the fare on the pitch was bitterly disappointing, lacking inspiration and sparkle.
England’s manager has been criticised for conservatism in the past, but his team sheet provoked excitement.
It was the kind of line-up his detractors have long demanded, with Phil Foden and Mason Mount alongside Declan Rice in midfield and serving Jack Grealish, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in attack.
But there was the whiff of serious anti-climax around Wembley as the home supporters filed away into the night following a stodgy 1-1 draw, though England still remain on course to qualify for next year’s Qatar World Cup.
It was not exactly a case of “be careful what you wish for” as England were comfortably contained by a Hungary side who lost at home to Albania in their last qualifier, but it may have served as a cold shower for some of the more romantic notions aimed towards Southgate in recent times.
He has based much of his qualifying campaign for the 2022 showpiece around the holding midfield partnership of Rice and Kalvin Phillips. With Phillips injured and Jordan Henderson on the bench, there was a sense of Southgate letting England off the leash. Yet they never even got out of the starting blocks.
When John Stones equalised before half-time, it seemed certain England would go on to secure victory, especially as they were facing a team they had thrashed 4-0 in Budapest in September.
Not a bit of it. The second half was, in fact, an eyesore.England were strangely lacking in ideas, despite the wealth of creation at their disposal. Hungary were resilient, well organised and presented Southgate’s side with a problem they could not solve.
Southgate did not hide from the reality. “Disappointing performance,” he said. “Hungary caused us a tactical problem and we were not fluid.
“We did not play at the level we need to play, simple as that. It’s difficult to pinpoint and we will go away and look at the balance of the team.
“We have to reflect and should not judge things on one game and that experiment. From the start we were not sharp with our play, gave the ball away, were over-running things and, for the first time in a long time, we have to hold our hands up.”
The biggest concern of all was the lightweight nature of the response when Hungary challenged England to break them down.
The symbol of their struggles was captain Kane, so far out of form and so lacking in confidence that there could be no questioning Southgate’s decision to take him out of the firing line with 14 minutes left. He looked jaded and off the pace, still dropping too deep on occasions, thus reducing his threat.
In the past, taking Kane off with the game at stake and England chasing a winner would have been regarded as a high-risk strategy. Not here. Kane had not made the case to stay on. His run of scoring in 15 consecutive qualifiers was over.
The removal of Grealish, arguably England’s most dangerous player, was mystifying, but the substitution of Kane was not. No-one can be exempt from harsh judgement in such circumstances and Kane was a prime candidate to be hooked by Southgate.
Grealish was at least carrying a threat and his departure was greeted by jeers from a large section of the Wembley crowd – and probably with great relief by Hungary.
Sterling, somewhat marginalised at Manchester City these days, is another who is not at his best and he accompanied Kane on the long walk back to the bench after 76 minutes. Once again there could be no complaints.
There was little or nothing to recommend this night on or off the field, although Southgate will have learned much and there is now every chance the central midfield pairing of Rice and Phillips will be restored at the earliest opportunity.
If this was an experiment by Southgate, it failed and may turn out to be very short-lived.