Gareth Southgate's historically bad England loss to Hungary tests goodwill with fans

WOLVERHAMPTON, England -- And to think Gareth Southgate was looking forward to playing in front of England fans again.

There was a smattering of shell-shocked supporters in the half-empty stands applauding the 51-year-old as he walked to the far side of Molineux but, turning towards the Sir Jack Hayward stand, that recognition was drowned out by a cacophony of angry boos after Hungary's remarkable 4-0 win on Tuesday night.

This was Southgate's biggest defeat as England manager, and the first time England have lost by a margin of four goals since 1964 against Brazil. It is their biggest home defeat since 1928 and the first time they have lost a home match by four goals without scoring in their entire history.

It may not matter in the grand scheme of things -- after all, the Nations League is hardly a pressing priority in a World Cup year.

But having enjoyed lengthy and widespread support since taking charge of England six years ago, this was about as brutal a referendum on the current state of Southgate's popularity as anyone could imagine.

Chants of "you're getting sacked in the morning" and "you don't know what you're doing" are palpably absurd, especially when the shock of the score line subsides.

Southgate is by definition the second-most successful England manager of all-time, having guided England to a World Cup semifinal and a European Championship final in the last two major tournaments. He has earned the right to experiment and there should be no lasting judgement based on four games crammed in as a coda to an exhausting campaign with preseason for most a matter of a few short weeks away.

But if the 2019 Nations League was a stepping-stone in the right direction from Russia, incorporating as it did victories over Spain -- in Spain -- and Croatia before a narrow extra-time defeat to the Netherlands and a third-place finish with a penalty shoot-out win over Switzerland, then this fortnight has to rank as a troubling step back.

These four matches were supposed to be an examination of how England fare without the home comforts of last summer -- two away games, a behind-closed-doors fixture and then a home game away from Wembley to finish. Two points, one goal and no wins is a troubling return.

Southgate has spent much of this camp talking about a need to balance short-term results with experimentation ahead of Qatar. The end product -- two defeats to Hungary, a credible draw against Germany and a stalemate with Italy -- therefore only heightens the pressure on Southgate to get it right at the World Cup.

And if he didn't know that before, he does now. He is an acutely thoughtful man, prone to introspection over his position, stating even as recently as last week that he would "not outstay my welcome" as England manager despite possessing a contract until 2024.

Having talked up the benefits of a full house after only 2,000 schoolchildren could attend Saturday's game against Italy due to UEFA sanctions, the abuse he received here will hurt. It feels like a lifetime ago now, but there was actually a rendition of "Southgate You're The One, Football's Coming Home Again" early in the first half, a chant created in 2018 and sustained in 2020 as Southgate's popularity reached heights rarely witnessed by previous England managers.

He achieved his previous level of acclaim by making giant strides in rebuilding the relationship between players and supporters, navigating longstanding historic hurdles to progress further than most of his predecessors. But the issue of finding the right balance in midfield remains arguably the biggest conundrum Southgate is yet to solve.

It is, of course, not Southgate's fault he does not have a Luka Modric, Jorginho or Frenkie de Jong to call on, but England need to find a way to overcome the absence of a deep-lying playmaker able to knit the team together. They were passed into submission by Modric in 2018's semifinal against Croatia, saw the tide turn firmly against them as Jorginho and Marco Verratti took control for Italy in last summer Euro 2020 final and here, with almost endless possession at their disposal, they were unable to break down a well-organised but limited Hungary side. It is the reason he opted for a safety-first central-midfield axis of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips at the Euros and is perhaps the crux of the accusation he is too conservative.

It was the root cause of the frustration that steadily multiplied in the stands as England laboured and fell further behind. Roland Sallai opened the scoring as England failed to deal with a 16th-minute free-kick. The 25-year-old doubled the scoring with 20 minutes left, becoming the first Hungary player to score twice in an away game against England since both Ferenc Puskas (two) and Nandor Hidegkuti (three) did so in a 6-3 win at Wembley in 1953.

That was Hungary's last -- and only other -- victory on English soil, achieved by a team known as the "Mighty Magyars," then considered the finest in world football. The 2022 version are not nearly as talented but England did their best to make them look that way, capitulating with more calamitous defending as Zsolt Nagy and substitute Daniel Gazdag struck to inflict humiliation on the hosts and leave them staring at relegation from League A, Group 3.

Southgate introduced Raheem Sterling at halftime -- his go-to guy with Harry Kane already on the pitch -- switched systems from 4-3-3 to a back three and even threw on Phil Foden for his appearance this month following a case of COVID-19 -- but England barely mustered anything, bar a late Kane header which hit the crossbar.

John Stones was sent off for a second bookable offence eight minutes from the end, an inexplicable decision by French referee Clement Louis Jean Turpin given Gazdag appeared to simply run into him off the ball. But it is Southgate's decision-making that faces renewed scrutiny now.

Southgate's trusted assistant, Steve Holland, waited on the touchline at full-time seemingly to help absorb some of the hostile atmosphere as Southgate's pace quickened a touch with the safety of the tunnel in sight. The pair have masterminded huge progress for England in recent years. This was a painful reminder of what an unrelenting mission that is.