Gareth Southgate takes heaviest flak as Europe's big guns struggle in Nations League

England manager under fire for humiliation by Hungary, but France, Italy and Germany also under par in competition

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The Uefa Nations League was invented to put jeopardy where there used to be indifference, to replace turgid friendlies with competitive zest.

Mostly it has worked. But to look at the topsy-turvy hierarchy of this, the competition’s third edition, is to see levels of jeopardy becoming very uncomfortable for countries and coaches who regard themselves as Europe’s heavyweights.

The world champions – and the Nations League’s defending champions – France, are bottom of their group. The European champions, Italy, spent Tuesday evening leaking goals against Germany, and put only a thin veil over an embarrassing scoreline with two late strikes in a 5-2 defeat.

Not that the Germans can feel especially smug. That was their first win in four outings so far in a group now led by Hungary.

But no doubt where the most caustic criticism is landing after this two-week, end-of-term addition to a draining club season.

England, narrowly beaten in the final of the European Championship only 11 months ago, suffered their biggest home defeat in 94 years against Hungary, 4-0, with 10 men on the field - John Stones a little unfortunate to be shown a second yellow card - at the end and a Molineux crowd chanting at manager Gareth Southgate: “You don’t know what you’re doing!”

England 0 Hungary 4 - player ratings

Southgate is entitled to regard the fevered, heated reaction of those watching and the scepticism about him that is now spreading across England’s media and punditry as forgetful and severe.

He has been England’s most successful manager for at least 30 years, with a World Cup semi-final, a Euros final and a Nations League top-four finish in his six-year reign. No other England boss has reached a European Championship final; the Three Lions’ previous World Cup semi-final, before Russia 2018, was in 1990.

Southgate could also point to how this punishing month, after demanding campaigns for elite players, has hurt others.

Didier Deschamps, the France head coach, is under scrutiny, like Southgate, for a June whose results read like England’s, albeit without an epoch-making 4-0 home thrashing: two defeats and two draws from four games.

Italy’s Roberto Mancini is doubly chastened, having only recently failed to get his Euro winners to the Qatar World Cup. And Germany’s Hansi Flick needed a big win. He arrested a run of four successive draws in Frankfurt on Tuesday.

Germany 5 Italy 2 - in pictures

But these men are Southgate’s allies only to a degree. He lacks the armour they all have against the pointed criticism he faces whenever England fall short: that his background in management is insufficient for a job he initially came into as a caretaker.

Southgate was an admired manager of England’s under-21s. But his record in club football, at least as a coach, was mixed, at best. Deschamps, Mancini, and Flick have all won major club prizes.

Add Southgate’s low-key credentials to the perception that he has not been proactive in higher-stakes matches – England conceded leads in the Euro final and against Croatia in the World Cup semi-final – and that his first instincts are cautious, and he knew the sort of rage he heard around Molineux is easily, quickly ignited.

Southgate, always sensitive and articulate in appreciating the wider responsibilities of the national job, may have elevated the expectations of what England should achieve, but he is well aware he has inherited a potentially exceptional generation of gifted players, many of whom have grown up only with sophisticated academy training, and some of whom do their daily work at clubs coached by the best in their profession.

When Southgate pauses over, say, the best use of Phil Foden, he is compared unfavourably with Pep Guardiola, under whom Foden has emerged as a stellar young talent. When Southgate voices doubts about Trent Alexander-Arnold, he is reminded that Jurgen Klopp values Alexander-Arnold’s many exceptional qualities as more important than any defensive deficits and always backs that judgment.

England had been sluggish, and evidently very tired, in the games before the thumping by Hungary. The collapse as they lost control Tuesday was still alarming.

Southgate would privately point out that, because of fatigue, a desire to give fringe players opportunities and look at alternative strategies, the line-up and the circumstances were unlike those he anticipates in November, when England play their opening World Cup fixture against Iran.

“I picked teams where I tried to balance the squad and use young players,” he said of the two defeats this month against Hungary. “I didn’t get the balance right. The responsibility lies with me.”

Responsibility will stay with a manager respected by his employers at the Football Association, and liked by a majority of the senior England players. But both those parties would become as anxious as the fans at Molineux if the September games against Germany and Italy are as chaotic as the Hungary nadir.

It is a headline result that, whatever happens in the five months until Qatar 2022, will stifle any excessive optimism about England’s prospects there.

Updated: June 15, 2022, 12:28 PM
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