This extended international break has been less ‘feast of football’, more ‘Bruce Bogtrotter’s trial by cake’ or ‘Mr. Creosote’s wafer thin mint’ for the Three Lions, with a wheezing, ruddy-faced squad force-fed more minutes than they could seemingly stomach.
After such a long and unrelenting campaign, perhaps it was predictable that Gareth Southgate’s men should spend large swathes of their fourth outing in a week-and-a-half plodding around with the pained lethargy of fatted foie gras ducks. Wholly less predictable, however, was the size of the Hungarians’ appetite for destruction.
The headline, of course, will be one of England’s humiliation - a pitiable 4-0 collapse on the night which leaves them cemented to the bottom of their UEFA Nations League group, and makes for two points from an available 12 over the course of the past few days.
This uncharacteristic ineptitude was rounded out with a worst home defeat since 1928, and has been bookended by a couplet of unexpected losses at the hands of a side who previously hadn’t beaten them since 1962. There’s probably a joke in there about London buses or something, if there happen to be any Hungarian late night talk show hosts who specialise in low hanging fruit reading this.
Perhaps most alarming, however, is the fact that England are now just two games away from Qatar without so much as a shred of momentum, and with little indication as to how they can hope to regain any.
For the first quarter of an hour, the hosts boasted 75% of possession in the Midlands, but their extended stints on the ball were akin to the manner in which a colony of earthworms might “possess” a fax machine - just because they have it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be able to do anything useful with it.
By the time the visitors had seized upon England’s stupefied response to a routine set-piece to take the lead part way through the first half, Southgate might have wondered if he’d slipped into an uneasy deja vu. By the interval, with his side trailing, blunted, and offering little in the way of a meaningful riposte, he must have felt like a Punxsutawney weather man on February 2nd.
And then it got worse.
And then it got worse again.
And then it got even worse still.
By the final whistle, this was Groundhog Day no longer. It might as well have been The Day After Tomorrow.
Apologists will argue that this result, and England’s recent nadir writ large, has come in the midst of a tornado of extenuating circumstances. Fatigue, experimentation, apathy - these have all, to some extent, played their part in this fortnight horribilis. Likewise, the Three Lions aren’t the only European superpower to have sputtered to a halt this month. World champions France, for instance, languish winless at the bottom of their Nations League group as well.
But regardless of excuses, valid or otherwise, there are matters that need to be addressed with more critical thought than simply scrunching up our collective eyelids, jabbing our fingers in our ears, and discordantly humming ‘Sweet Caroline’ like a flock of quixotic seagulls.
Few, if any, England players produced anything remotely close to their best on Tuesday.
If we’re grasping for straws, no matter how flimsy, you could perhaps argue that Conor Gallagher - falling snugly into the centre of a Venn diagram between Prince Charming from Shrek 2 and the Duracell Bunny - staked another relatively convincing claim for a supporting role in the heart of midfield.
Jarrod Bowen has shown in fits and starts that he can produce a similar buzzy impetus to Jack Grealish this week, but does so in a way that should keep your uncle who shares nostalgic memes about ‘proper bin men’ on Facebook fairly happy too. Hooked at the break, it remains to be seen whether or not the West Ham winger has done enough to stay in contention, but the feeling is that he must be a strong maybe at this stage.
Elsewhere, playing Reece James at left-back was a kind of ‘two birds, one stone’ punt that offered moments of fleeting promise - but really, really wanting something to work out doesn’t always mean it will. Just ask LIV Golf’s PR department.
Speaking of Stones, John’s uncanny, Stars-in-their-Eyes tribute to benched calamity Harry Maguire was a nice touch, but one that will do little to ease the growing sense of disquiet surrounding England’s central defensive options. His soft sending off late on was, at the very least, not his fault.
Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsdale chose a bad time to start exhibiting the shot-stopping capabilites of a hula hoop, Bukayo Saka ran around with the aimless, wilful exhaustion of a child in the dying stages of a birthday party as their post-cake sugar rush begins to subside, and if Harry Kane had dropped any deeper to seek out possession he might have come down with the bends on the counter-attack.
This was a muted display bearing all the molar-grinding frustration of a futile busyness that England have largely managed to shed in recent years. It was like watching a character in a soap opera climbing a staircase, knowing full well that the set doesn’t actually go anywhere - performance for performance’s sake, melodrama without substance.
Equally as troubling is the rate at which the mood against Southgate is beginning to sour.
Long gone are the heady days of messianic waistcoats and Atomic Kitten singalongs, creepingly replaced instead with the kind of flat mortification that has put pay to every England manager since the turn of the millenium.
Late chants of, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ seemed to amplify a microcosm of national discontent that is threatening to spread like termites through a clog factory. The resounding boos that drowned out the last blast of the referee’s whistle were so loud that it would hardly have been a surprise to see them accompanied by torches and pitchforks.
In reality, the radical response to England’s recent slump does probably err on the side of excessive. Like him or loathe him, Southgate’s relative success in major tournaments has, justifiably, bought him enough goodwill to carry him through to Qatar at least.
But this international break, as needless and as unwanted as it was by everyone other than the moneybags at UEFA’s hollowed-out volcano lair, has raised a lot of questions that the manager needs to answer - and answer quickly.
Let the soul-searching commence.