England have gone from being fuelled by the goodwill of a nation to hearing stirrings of discontent and grumblings about conservatism within the space of 12 months.
This time last year, Gareth Southgate’s England had opened a delayed Euro 2020 Finals with victory over Croatia at Wembley before riding a wave of euphoria to their first major final in 55 years, losing agonisingly on penalties to Italy.
Fast forward to the present day and England inhabit a rather world-weary environment, with both players and supporters perhaps suffering from football fatigue and Southgate’s squad under the microscope amid fears they have not kicked on as hoped.
The backdrop to these murmurings has been three distinctly underwhelming performances in their Uefa Nations League campaign to date, starting with defeat in Hungary, a point rescued by Harry Kane’s late penalty in Germany before a goalless draw in the “behind closed doors” game against Italy at Molineux on Saturday.
No goals from open play. Precious little in the way of inspiration, excitement or energy. England have lacked any sort of ‘X Factor’.
This is why Southgate and England need a victory, preferably a convincing one, when the fans flock in to fill Molineux in the return fixture with the Hungarians on Tuesday.
The Football Association will also be hoping the game passes off without incident after a chequered history of crowd behaviour in recent games between the countries.
England’s opening Nations League game in Budapest was marred by some Hungarian fans booing visiting players taking the knee.
Those fans numbered over 20,000 in total as they exploited a loophole in Uefa regulations that allowed children accompanied by adults to attend what was meant to be a behind-closed-doors game as punishment for racist and homophobic behaviour during Euro 20202.
The booing followed on from incidents in September last year when, because the game was under Fifa jurisdiction, Hungarian fans were allowed to attend a World Cup qualifier in Budapest. England players were racially abused, resulting in a two-match stadium closure for Hungary, with one game suspended.
The following month Hungary fans clashed with police at Wembley then booed the taking the knee, which saw their fans banned by Fifa from being present at the country’s next game, against Poland, as a result.
‘England still hugely over-reliant on Kane’
Context must be applied to the current situation when assessing both Southgate and England’s current standing.
For all the attempts to add the gloss of competition to the Nations League fixtures, England’s players have understandably looked leg weary, in some cases exhausted, at the end of a gruelling season.
There is only so much they can give and many tanks look empty. Even the most consummate and dedicated professional could be forgiven for taking a brief glance towards the beach, if only for a second.
This means Southgate is having to manage minutes and starting line-ups. It should come as no great shock that legs have looked leaden.
And the past two results are hardly catastrophic.
There is no escaping, however, that three games away from England’s opening World Cup fixture against Iran in Qatar they look nothing like a team who will send the likes of Brazil and France running for cover in November.
England are still hugely over-reliant on captain Kane as an attacking threat and must hope Manchester United captain Harry Maguire, still a Southgate staple in central defence, recovers a semblance of form with his club at the start of next season.
If Southgate is edging towards using a back four, then Maguire and John Stones would probably be his preferred pairing. And there will be frustration that Manchester City’s Phil Foden, potentially such a rich source of creation, has been sidelined for the Nations League games because of Covid.
Since losing to Italy in the Euro 2020 Final, England have played 12 games. They have won seven, drawn four and lost one. They have scored 36 goals and conceded five, although that includes 20 goals in three games against Andorra, San Marino and Albania, skewing that statistic.
On the surface a very decent record. Scratch beneath and issues need to be addressed.
Kane has scored exactly a third of those goals and next in the list after his 12 come Maguire and Bukayo Saka with three. This is quite the imbalance.
Roma’s Tammy Abraham did not take his big change to put himself in the frame as Kane’s natural deputy in the Italian stalemate, leaving the door open for Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin to reignite his World Cup aspirations if he stays fit at the start of next season.
Manchester United pair Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho will also have eyes on Qatar but clearly have much ground to make up, Southgate saying: “They have got a lot to do to get back in the squad.”
Southgate himself has not been impervious to criticism of England’s perceived conservative style in recent times, not exactly a scream but certainly a little more than a whisper.
He is aware of scrutiny on England’s approach, although he added that he had received plenty of pats on the back and understands why the paying customer might want to see the likes of Saka, Foden and Jack Grealish in the team.
Southgate has the job of striking the balance as opposed to fulfilling football fantasies but there is no doubt England have looked, at best, workmanlike in these three games.
This debate led to Southgate’s intriguing comment that he “won’t outstay my welcome”, although he is under contract until December 2024 and England will be one of the World Cup favourites in Qatar.
This has still felt like an England international break that has struggled to get going, one that has delivered more questions than answers about their current status and direction – in part because these have, at times, felt like matches too far for players running on fumes.
England can shift the mood and the emphasis with their first victory of this Nations League campaign by beating Hungary to end this season with at least a small sample of the feel-good factor that accompanied them a year ago.