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England fans finally have a stick to beat Gareth Southgate | nations league

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WWell, that escalated quickly. This was an unsettling and deeply toxic night for Gareth Southgate and his England players, though mainly, of course, for Southgate himself, who will now find not just his feet but his whole body weary under fire from angry public opinion.

England came to Molineux looking to cap this silly and exhausted Nations League season with a win, a sense of momentum regained. What they got was 90 minutes of pain, lactic acid, bruising and a feeling, in the middle of that, a feeling that something was starting to slip away.

When Southgate entered the field in the 90th minute, he was booed angrily from every corner. There were cries of genuine rage, of betrayal. This has, of course, been the backdrop for much of the last year. Southgate is England’s most successful manager of the modern era. Southgate is a decent, hard-working guy. Southgate, by any measure, has led England brilliantly.

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But the England fans don’t like Southgate, and even without a stick to beat him, Southgate has been beaten. Even without any record of defeat, only of success, he has been labeled a failure. Even on a near-constant run of wins, goals and golden moments, the England manager has been branded a fraud and a killjoy.

Well, the public got what it wanted here. Finally some meat, some substance, a real crime to charge the culprit with. The defeat against Hungary could be avoided. A 4-0 thrashing at home to Hungary, during which England simply disintegrated, is something else. This was a genuinely woeful performance to cap an 11-day odyssey that now reads: played four, lost two, drew two, scored one (Kane, pen).

All the teams, all the sports entities are a shared act of will, of spirit, of wanting this to work. And in the second half, England simply evaporated, a team without resistance, without a coherent sense of self. It was almost comical at times. When Hungary’s third goal was grazed into the bottom corner of the England net by Zsolt Nagy, it was greeted by a delirious roar from visiting fans high up in the farthest stands. And from the rest of Molineux for jeers, insults, incoherent rage, and you thought, well at least it couldn’t get any worse.

Reece James was one of the few England players to emerge with any credit. Photograph: Will Cooper/JMP/Shutterstock

Turns out yes, it could. Two minutes later England were down to 10 men, John Stones being sent off for an accidental elbow to the face. Surely, now, we are hitting rock bottom. But not! With six minutes remaining, 3-0 down, Southgate eliminated Bukayo Saka and sent, oh no Gareth, really no, Harry Maguire into another wave of exasperated fury.

And Southgate, of course, is going to get a lot of abuse and plenty of expert evisceration in the coming days. This was already happening, and England had lost just once in the last 18 months. There will be talk that she should go now, that she deserves no patience, no leeway, no sympathy, that the first straw is the last straw.

But one oddity here at the end was that even when Southgate was booed, the players were applauded off the pitch. The same players who didn’t seem to want to play these games and have played as if they didn’t. It is, of course, the manager’s job to deal with this. But who of those players performed at an acceptable level here? Reece James? Marc Guehi? Someone else? Kane tried and never stopped running, but at times he seemed so overcome with exhaustion that he might as well have spent the second half in a nightcap and a pair of pajamas. Kalvin Phillips was way below his best. Jude Bellingham looked like what he is, an 18-year-old. Conor Gallagher struggled vaguely. No one in a white shirt had stardust, a sense of vigor.

The Stones had a terrible night, bullied and manhandled by the fantastic Adam Szalai, who moved around the field like a Roman siege tower bouncing off the white shirts, finding passes.

Szalai has big feet and a hunger for contact, a man with a shadowy cult hero career in the Premier League that somehow never happened. How, you wondered, has he never played for Everton? The slight irony here is that Southgate did as he was asked.

England played a 4-3-3 with only one holding midfielder, with exciting young players on the pitch. They started off pretty well too, then just fell apart when Hungary took the lead thanks to lousy defence.

With 23 minutes remaining, there were already howls, shouts and roars, outrage, as England passed the ball past a packed Hungarian midfield.

This helps? Is it deserved? But England have also encountered a new kind of problem in these games, fatigue on the ball, an old inherent feeling of playing through some boggy substance, midfielders unable to turn the ball, always playing in the wrong direction.

There were changes at the break. Southgate switched to a 3-5-2. England got worse. At times they seemed spectral, a team in the process of disappearing. And maybe there was another lesson here.

If you ask for something enough times, you just might get it.

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