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Southgate knows that better than anyone and he did not make any excuses on Saturday night after his side suffered a shock first loss inside 90 minutes since November 2020. He refused to blame the soft award of the penalty that gave Hungary a 1-0 win or this run of four Nations League games coming at the end of a gruelling Premier League season.
Southgate did, however, question his own decisions, specifically around the amount of experimentation in his selection at the Puskas Arena. James Justin and Jarrod Bowen were handed debuts, while England also played in a 3-4-3 formation, with Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham trusted with holding down the midfield.
“Across these four games, we are trying to balance having a look at things, finding out about players and trying to win,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t quite get the balance of that right but we’ve learned a lot from it.
“And I have to accept you are not going to win matches and you’ve got to ride the criticism that comes from it with the learning that should help us further down the line.”
Southgate is right to accept criticism for a disjointed and lacklustre performance, but he is also right that the time for experimentation is now. England have just five games before the World Cup starts in Qatar and if Southgate does not test different options now, then when can he?
In ideal circumstances, Bowen and Justin would have been integrated into the team slowly. But time is not on England’s side.
Southgate’s side face Germany in Munich tomorrow before games against Italy on Saturday and Hungary next Tuesday. After that, there will be two matches in September before the World Cup opener against Iran on November 21.
“We don’t have any friendlies between now and the World Cup,” said Southgate. “So the only opportunity to try things and to find out about people is within these games.
If Southgate does not test different options now, then when can he?
“Frankly, that’s better than finding out in friendlies because we’re going to see them under pressure in matches where the quality of the opposition is good.”
Not all experiments get the desired result and that was certainly the case for Southgate on Saturday. Justin struggled at left wing-back, eventually coming off at half-time with a knock, and his difficulties highlighted the lack of depth in that position beyond Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw.
Bowen’s debut, in contrast, was a success. The West Ham winger demonstrated what he can offer and was one of few positives for England.
He looked like the player he has been for West Ham, full of running and offering a direct approach that makes him a constant goal threat. In knockout football at a major tournament, when games are tight, someone like Bowen could be valuable off the bench.
Southgate might be correct in saying he got the balance between consistency and experimentation wrong on Saturday, and he may go back to more of the tried and tested against Germany tomorrow. John Stones, Kalvin Phillips and Raheem Sterling could all come into the team to give it more of a Euro 2020 feel.
The England manager, however, should not completely abandon his plans to experiment. He is already missing Chilwell, Phil Foden and Shaw, and he could easily be without key players in Qatar. Now is the time to learn who could step in for those players if needed.
In many ways, this run of four games is similar to what the World Cup will be like, a tight turnaround from club football with players feeling the impact of a busy schedule.
England wilted in a baking hot Budapest, but over the next three games Southgate should be able to find out who can handle the heat - and who can’t.