The 51-year-old admitted there was a “risk” of loss of momentum, but that was just another calculation to make for an international break with a lot of caveats and complications. It was for those reasons that Southgate was relatively relaxed about the results, as he reiterated that this was mostly about “managing minutes” like a pre-season.
In perhaps the most instructive comment from an extended sit-down with media after the Hungary match, though, the England manager stated that the 4-0 defeat showed the need to find “balance” even amid calls for more open football.
It was Southgate’s perceived conservatism that was the source of most supporter ire on Tuesday, with that escalating into boos, chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” and even “you’re getting sacked in the morning”.
“Of course, I’ll use it as fuel,” Southgate said. “Because when you have disappointment and you read negativity, you of course want to fight and prove people wrong, but I’ve had, I’ve done that all my life, so that there’s not an extra incentive because of a night like tonight. I know nights like this can happen. They’re not pleasant. They’re not enjoyable. I’ve seen it with others. But they are the realities of football.
“You don’t carry it with you as a scar. It hardens you. It provides resolve and I’ve had plenty of those experiences in my career as a player and as a manager. And it’s not realistic to go through six years as an England manager and not have something similar to tonight happen probably long before it has.”
Southgate said he is “absolutely clear” on why the result against Hungary happened, which was why he said he was surprised at some of the commentary - if not the reaction to the performance. The England manager had spent much of the last 10 days implicitly warning that setbacks were possible due to the nature of the break, but some critics might interpret a cautiousness in his explanation of the play.
“I have found the 10 days strange in terms of the narrative, just as I found the last Nations League strange, because I think the context was clear. I don’t agree with everything that was suggested, and I think some of the desire to see open play … we saw [against Hungary] that you’ve got to have the balance of a team right.
“And you’ve got to get those decisions right. And with a club, maybe if you’re at the top, and you’ve got a long time working with the players, you can play a more expansive game, but I think even the top teams, they’re bloody good defensively, they’re good on transition, the balance of everything is right. So I think the idea that we can just play lots of attacking players and rely on talent to win matches: it’s not the way it is.”
There is a fair view within the Football Association that this break’s results were mostly the consequence of an unusually long international break at the end of almost two years of non-stop football, and Southgate himself acknowledged that England “probably could have done with only two games rather than four”. He consequently explained some of the rationale behind the decisions, but also how the team was left short in certain games.
“But I still felt that the experience for some of those younger players and giving them the opportunity, one, we needed to know what they’re capable of, can they come into the team? Can they be the support? Are they for Qatar? And secondly, we couldn’t keep flogging the first-choice players. In the end that would be detrimental further down the line. I think we might have got away with it. But I think it was a big risk. Now you think ‘God, you know, I wish we’d done the latter’. But actually that would have been selfish to try and keep pressure off me rather than what’s right for England going to a World Cup.
“I think the balance was pretty good at the start. We’ve had a problem down the left side because left-backs aren’t fit. So, to progress the ball down that side, there’s been a blockage. I felt at halftime we’d be able to progress it better with Reece [James] in his wing-back position with Bukayo [Saka] on the left, because actually we had a four at the back but they weren’t able to progress forward enough.
“But the second goal really punctured everything and, yes, a lot of lessons learned.
“I think the players have got to clear their heads, they’ll come back with a fresh mind, they’ll be looking forward to a World Cup with excitement. And we’ve got to prepare them in the best way in order to do that in September.”
Southgate admitted that, if he was a less experienced manager, he might struggle with this international break and the three-month wait until the next games much more.
“The hard part with international management is you don’t get a game on Saturday to put it right… and we shouldn’t have a result like tonight for sure. And that’s my responsibility because of the balance. But I’ve got evidence of the results we’ve had and the performances we’ve had and the way we’ve gone about those. So I’m actually very clear if I was a younger manager that hadn’t been through the experiences before, I might be thinking, ‘hang on a minute, what’s gone wrong? How did that happen?’ Well, I’m really clear on all of those things. And what would need to be right to make sure that nights like tonight don’t happen.”