Fatigue bites after long season
The scheduling of four Nations League games in the space of 10 days after a gruelling domestic campaign always felt excessive and so it has proved. “Sympathy for the fans and for the players,” Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville wrote on Twitter during England’s second-half capitulation against Hungary. “This isn’t right.”
Gareth Southgate’s critics will not let him off lightly and nor should they. Every side faced the same issues with fatigue. Southgate’s mistakes in terms of tactics and selection were costly too.
But it has been clear watching England’s performances over the last four games that many of the players are physically and mentally drained. Take the 20-year-old Bukayo Saka, who appeared in every one of Arsenal’s Premier League fixtures last season. Or Harry Kane, who featured in all but one of Tottenham’s.
Both Saka and Kane played prominent roles on England’s run to the Euro 2020 final before last season even began and they are not the only ones. Over the course of the last year, these players have been pushed to their limits.
This summer, major tournament-free ahead of the winter World Cup, looked like an opportunity for rest and recuperation. Instead, England’s exhausted squad head belatedly on holiday with their morale drained as well as their energy levels.
Goals lacking as even Kane struggles
Southgate bemoaned England’s reliance on Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling after Saturday’s goalless draw with Italy but even they could not help him against Hungary. In fact, neither of them even mustered a shot on target.
It was England’s defensive meltdown that prompted the boos at Molineux but most damning of all is that across their four Nations League games this month, England have only found the net once – and that came from the penalty spot against Germany.
No goals from open play in 360 minutes of competitive action is not what any England fan envisaged from these games but a lack of creativity and cutting edge has been a running theme.
Southgate used a string of different players in attack besides Kane and Sterling. He trialled different systems too. But the side’s consistent bluntness leaves him with questions to answer.
In Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Jarrod Bowen, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish and Tammy Abraham, he could call on six players who scored a combined total of 63 league goals last season. So why couldn’t they produce for the national side?
Fatigue cannot be the sole factor.
An experiment backfired
Gareth Southgate’s desire to give his fatigue-hit side minutes off over the bruising international quadruple-header meant the only time he saw anything likely to resemble his first-choice selection in Qatar was in the 1-1 draw with Germany.
There, England were still patchy but came away with a positive result given their opposition’s resurgence under Hansi Flick.
That aside, his selections and in-game changes have done little to relieve the growing pressure around the England squad’s poor run of form.
In defeat to Hungary in England’s first game he refused to deviate from the 3-4-3 which was being cut open time and time again, perhaps with a desire to conserve the game-time of the players who would be needed to change their shape and improve their performance.
Had he known the three games which would follow, perhaps he would have been more adventurous, because at least a result in Budapest would have been one positive to counter what has followed.
Ironically, the Three Lions have changed shape regularly in the three games since but more to share minutes out than build a cohesive unit. With that in mind, it is no major surprise that England should lack any sense of identity on the pitch, and the manager admitted after Tuesday’s chastening defeat he decided against putting more of his experienced players on to protect them from injury.
Even so, Southgate could not have envisaged that his intentions would backfire so spectacularly. He has taken responsibility, and now it is on him to deal with the inevitable pressure of facing Italy and Germany sides in September who would like nothing more than to help relegate England.
Southgate fronts up
To his credit, Southgate did not shy away from taking responsibility for the result at Molineux on Tuesday night, admitting he got his selection wrong – even if it was to some degree forced upon him by the circumstances.
“I cannot dress up what has happened tonight in any way, shape or form,” he said. “I did not get the balance right.
“We have some very good young players but they need experienced players around them. When the game started to go against them tonight I did not put the leaders around them.
“I could not put [Declan] Rice out there again, I could not put [Harry] Maguire out there again. Well, I could. But if they got a serious injury and missed the winter I would be kicking myself.
“In a difficult situation, you need experience around you to navigate those kind of games. That is the balance that we did not have tonight.
“The responsibility lies with me.”
It is his responsibility, too, to lift England up. But having been forced to navigate four fixtures in 10 days at an inopportune moment, he must now wait until September for a chance to change the mood.