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Tonight is England’s fourth and final game this month, which has proved to be a testing time in their World Cup preparations. So far, three games have yielded just one goal (a penalty from Harry Kane against Germany) and no wins, while defeat to Hungary was England’s first loss to them in 60 years.
Southgate has come under fire and, although a convincing win against the Magyars tonight would quieten the critics, it will not change the way Southgate looks at the journey to Qatar.
“Well, it would be a more enjoyable couple of months [if we won], but it won’t change how I would view the next period,” he said.
“I accept it would change external [perceptions]. We all want to leave with a win and if we win tonight, we’ve still got the chance to win this group.
“We also want to send the supporters home having seen a really good performance, a purposeful performance, they want to see a win as well. The noise will still be there because if we win we’ll only have beaten Hungary — that’s the reality. If we don’t win, then it’s a different story.”
Southgate may be unfazed by whatever happens tonight, but it is impossible to ignore the value of a win. England do not meet up again until September, when they face Italy and Germany in their final two games before the World Cup.
Southgate is experienced enough to deal with the expectations and perhaps he also remains unmoved because of the circumstances surrounding these four games.
Players look exhausted after a long season, which is still going on despite the England cricket team playing the final day of their second Test of the summer today and the Queen’s tennis championship beginning yesterday.
Other countries have struggled during this period, too, notably France, who have finished this four-game run with two draws and two defeats — and that could explain why Southgate is keeping calm.
Nonetheless, the temptation to go with a strong team tonight is surely there, not least because it would mean England can still win this Nations League group, as opposed to currently sitting bottom of it.
Southgate, however, is playing the long game and it is why West Ham midfielder Declan Rice will be given a rest and Kalvin Phillips handed a chance to impress.
“What I don’t want to do is put a team out and we end up with a serious injury and we’ve lost a player for the World Cup because I’ve put them in at the wrong time,” said Southgate.
“So we’ve got to make sure that those decisions are the right ones as well, even though I know there is a consequence, personally, for not getting the result you want. But there’s got to be bigger objectives than that.”
Kane’s colleagues getting on the scoresheet would be welcome, given a lack of recent goals.
Southgate will still name a fairly strong side as he continues to experiment ahead of the World Cup, with Harry Kane leading the line as he chases down Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring record for England.
Kane needs four goals to move past Rooney’s tally of 53, while a hat-trick tonight would draw him level.
Southgate would love Kane to knock that off against Hungary, although his fellow forwards also getting on the scoresheet would be welcome, given their lack of recent goals.
In an ideal world both would happen — but Southgate is wise enough to know the words ‘England’ and ‘ideal world’ don’t always go together.