Gareth Southgate believes his young players will not suffer lasting damage from a “chastening” and “painful” Nations League defeat to Hungary – calling for his critics to judge his side when it is at full strength.
The Three Lions were humbled with a shock 4-0 loss at Molineux as Roland Sallai’s brace was complemented by a Zsolt Nagy screamer and – shortly after John Stones’ red card – Daniel Gazdag’s cool finish on a night when fans booed the team and chanted “you don’t know what you’re doing” at Southgate.
This was the worst possible end to England’s taxing run of four Nations League matches in just 11 days and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth with just two September games to go until the World Cup.
At the end of a season which kicked off 311 days ago with the Community Shield, Southgate had to continually shuffle his pack as he also wanted to look at options ahead of Qatar.
“It’s a chastening night,” admitted Southgate.
“We’ve not lost not many football matches and when you lose so heavily at home, especially, with England that’s going to be very, very painful.
“It was a difficult night for the players, I feel for them, because in the end, in the two Hungry games in particular, I pick teams where I tried to balance the squad, give young players opportunities and I didn’t get the balance right to help them to be able to perform at the level that they needed to to win those matches.
“The responsibility lies with me on that but there was also a fact that it was really difficult to put the strongest team out in every game.
“So we used it to prepare for Qatar, some of those players are going to be beyond Qatar as well. But of course a night like tonight is really difficult and it’s important that I take that off of their shoulders, because that’s totally down to me.”
Jordan Henderson was given the camp off and Trent Alexander-Arnold left midway through after particularly taxing seasons, while first-choice left-backs Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw were unavailable as they build fitness.
Southgate has also had to balance the pursuit of progress with protecting players having gone from a mammoth club campaign into this four-game Nations League slog.
Southgate has helped heal previous rifts between the England team and their supporters, taking them to a World Cup semi-final in 2018 and reaching the final of Euro 2020 last summer.
While he said he understands why there is a newly-developed criticism in this disappointing Nations League run, he asked for him and his players to be gauged when all over their top players are fit and available.
“I know the role. I knew the role before I took it,” he said when asked about the sea-change in the attitude towards him.
“I would say it’s happened over the period of 10 days, but I saw my predecessors go through that and I know great people like Sir Bobby Robson, what he had to go through and how he was viewed in the end on getting the team to a World Cup semi-final so football is emotional.
“People pay to come and watch. They’re going to give an opinion. The team weren’t able to deliver tonight, my responsibility and so if the flak comes my way then I have to deal with that.
“It’s not realistic to have had the ride I’ve had for five years and not have bad nights.
“It’s not pleasant. The irony is that the pressure we’ve had, and the reputational comments have come in the two Nations League campaigns and in neither campaign have we been anywhere near able to pick our strongest teams for the games.
“The the matches where every other England managers have been judged, we’ve had the best performances for 50 years so there is a balance in my head.
“I’m really clear but I totally understand the response tonight, I totally understand there’s been this narrative all week.
“I can’t dress up what’s happened tonight in any way, shape or form but if we’re judged on the matches with our full strength players, then I think it’s a different assessment.”
Southgate retains the belief England will be among the favourites in Qatar despite this galling end to the current season.
Asked if he is still confident of World Cup success, he replied: “After a result like tonight, whatever my answer to that question is going to be open to ridicule.
“So I’ve got to get the balance right, that is what we’re very clear on. What works for us, what gets results for us? What has got results for us, that didn’t get that balance right in these games. But I think there are mitigating circumstances for that.
“We’ve always said we are one of a group of teams that can be pushing in the winter. I don’t believe that’s any different.”