WHEN anticipating an England fixture these days it has become obligatory to highlight the outstanding defensive record attained in recent times under Gareth Southgate.
Dating back to the autumn of 2019, the Three Lions have conceded only six times in 22 games, which equates to a goal every 335 minutes. Put another way, they have kept clean sheets in 72% of their commitments across nigh-on three years, a period of time that has seen England reach a major final and easily qualify for Qatar.
Given that this sustained parsimony has been achieved via five different goalkeepers, eight different centre-backs and numerous midfielders entrusted to protect them, it’s only proper to reserve most of the praise for Southgate himself, for making his team so difficult to break down. They have hardly been shy in going forward either. The aggregate score-line from those 22 games is 67-6.
Of course, there is a caveat to this excellent back-catalogue and what’s more, we all know what it is. It is considerably easier to keep out the opposition when their striker needs googling and their best creative outlet would struggle to get a game for Barnsley or Blackpool, and eight of those clean sheets have come at the expense of nations that reside on pages two, three and four on FIFA’s world ranking site. Are England then merely flat-track bullies, stat-padding their way through routine qualifying groups?
The answer to that query leads us to one of football’s great cliches, in that a team can only beat what is put before them, and even if the Three Lions have enjoyed a fairly comfortable time of it since late 2019, what they’ve had to do, they have done brilliantly.
Take Harry Kane as an exemplar of this. His remarkable seven goals for his country inside a week last November came against Albania and San Marino and was downplayed accordingly. Yet, no other forward in world football has racked up such numbers against minnows of similar standing and 15 goals in his last 12 appearances for England is a staggering return. Kane is now just four away from Wayne Rooney’s record and the Spurs ace will be hellbent on at least closing that gap before signing off for the summer.
Harry Maguire is another player whose feats in an England jersey have been unfairly minimised. Sure, there was banter currency in mocking his defiant goal celebration when converting against Albania late last year, but only in the context of his poor form for Manchester United. In white, the 29-year-old has been consistently dependable, demanding the highest standards are maintained at the back and notching four at the other end in his eight most recent outings, Incidentally, seven of England’s last 26 goals have come from defenders, a ratio that far exceeds the norm.
This Saturday in Budapest, England begin their latest Nations League adventure against a Hungary collective that cannot be dismissed as a mere minnow, nor regarded as a serious threat. Rather, in many ways, they fall between two stools, and this was well demonstrated when the sides met twice-over during the World Cup 2022 qualifiers. In Hungary, the visitors strolled to a 4-0 win, putting in a professional performance that was over-shadowed by disgraceful behaviour in the stands that means this encounter will be played behind closed doors. This is highly pertinent when it’s acknowledged that some of the Magyars’ best displays in recent years – their 1-1 draw with France at the Euros springs to mind – have been inspired by a boisterous and packed Puskas Arena.
The hard work is well under way 👊 pic.twitter.com/XLWNERB9aF
— England (@England) May 30, 2022
At Wembley for the corresponding tie however, Hungary shocked their hosts by taking the lead then holding on to a draw, all while putting together a respectable 20 attacks on route. In Roland Sallai, Hungary’s scorer that evening, they possess a right-sided attacking talent with two in three on the international stage and it matters too that the 25-year-old ended his Bundesliga campaign with Freiburg on a high note, finding the target and assisting regularly during the seasons’ closing stages.
It also matters – perhaps – that Hungary have a propensity to score early, with eight of their last 24 struck inside the opening 25 minutes. Nine of their last 14 have been converted in the first-half.
Even so, they remain a thoroughly beatable side and England will likely beat them. Alongside Kane up front we can expect to see Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling featuring, both still buzzing from winning the Premier League in dramatic late fashion. Behind them, Mason Mount will knit midfield to attack, a player who is long overdue a direct goal involvement for England but for Chelsea has accumulated them impressively all season. Only he, Jarrod Bowen and Mo Salah reached double figures for goals and assists in 2021/22.
Furthermore, if Hungary tend to get off the mark early doors the same is true of Southgate’s men. On seven occasions in their last ten outings, they have scored inside 20 minutes.
Three days later Germany awaits, one of only a handful of elite teams England have faced in recent memory and memorably so as the Three Lions prevailed in a Euro last 16 clash last summer. Only this will be a markedly different foe to that occasion, revitalised as Die Mannschaft are under new boss Hansi Flick.
Utilising the array of attacking talent at his disposal and implementing a high-octane press, the former Bayern coach has transformed a stale institution and if Germany’s unbeaten run since the Euros is impressive, what stands out additionally is their average of 3.7 goals per game. Back both teams to score when the odds become available.