DOMINIC KING: Three is NOT the magic number in the centre of midfield for Gareth Southgate

The second half had barely started when the conversation began. Steve Holland, England’s assistant head coach, shouted to Declan Rice and then began jabbering with Gareth Southgate.

You didn’t need UEFA coaching badges to work out what was happening. England’s World Cup qualifier with Hungary was becoming more and more like a basketball game, a continuous motion of you attack-we attack, and neither Southgate nor Holland liked what they saw.

This had been the night when Southgate had decided to find a way of getting Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jack Grealish into England’s starting line-up but those who thought such a bold triumvirate would be the ticket for a magic carpet ride had not got what they had expected.

Mason Mount played in a midfield three alongside Foden but found it tough against Hungary on Tuesday

Phil Foden (L) and Mason Mount (R) started for England but struggled against Hungary 

Gareth Southgate also started Jack Grealish, who was taken off just after the hour mark

Gareth Southgate also started Jack Grealish, who was taken off just after the hour mark 

On and on the discussion went until, just after the hour, Southgate had seen enough. Grealish – much to his obvious disappointment and irritation – was brought off, Bukayo Saka was introduced, England’s shape changed to 4-2-3-1 and a smattering of boos greeted the decision.

We got a glimpse for 62 minutes and while not even their biggest fans would attempt to say Foden, Grealish and Mount enjoyed their best nights in an England shirt, you have to wonder when they will all be given the opportunity to begin again.

The snap judgement would have be to say the system didn’t work and pin the blame on the manager for making the call. We all know the modern habit is to pick a scapegoat if something isn’t happening immediately but what is it to be?

Southgate cannot be deemed to be too cautious if he doesn’t play all those forward thinking midfielders together but then branded too cavalier for unleashing them in a game that looked perfect to give this combination a chance.

Sometimes – just sometimes – there is a simple answer when things don’t happen as you expect. It comes down to the players not playing as they should do, making the wrong decisions and falling short of their expected standards. This is football. This happens.

And how it happened in that laborious opening half hour. There was one brief flurry early on, when Grealish – oblivious to the bedlam and the truncheon-wielding policeman a few yards away – skipped down the left flank and fizzed a ball into the danger zone but it came to nothing.

Grealish immediately looked to the skies, rubbing his face in that rapid way you do when something has come so close but remained so far. It was to become a common gesture amongst his team-mates, as England, from back to front, looked at times as if they couldn’t pass a parcel.

Those balls that Foden lofted forwarded to Harry Kane, with the deftness of a golfer reaching for his sand wedge around the green, didn’t check back into the captain’s path or hit the target as unerringly as they had done in Andorra.

Grealish toiled during Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier at Wembley but he was then substituted 

You could see it was bothering Foden. When an attempt to find his captain in the 28th minute was comfortably cleared by Hungary’s defence, he clasped his hands together and his desire to correct things immediately was shown when he barked at a ball boy to give him a ball quickly.

Mount, still coming to terms that his progress has been recognised with a Ballon d’Or nomination, was even more out of sorts and one attempted cross-field pass was shanked so badly in Hungary’s half that it enabled the visitors to launch a counterattack.

In fairness to Mount, he took off like a sprinter to ensure no peril could come from his mistake, scurrying back to fill the gap that Luke Shaw had left behind. To stress the point again: this was not down to Southgate. This was three men who were out of sorts.

What you know about this particular trident, though, is that it would have taken a special set of circumstances for it to continue. None of them are sulkers, none of them go missing if things are difficult. Foden, especially, will embark on a crusade to turn things around and so it proved.

Unlike Saturday's showing in Andorra, Foden found the going very tough against Hungary

Unlike Saturday’s showing in Andorra, Foden found the going very tough against Hungary

Southgate changed the shape to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 for the final 30 minutes of the clash

Southgate changed the shape to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 for the final 30 minutes of the clash 

As half-time drew closer, that little wiry figure was everywhere. He’d play with this intensity if it was a World Cup final or a kick about in his back garden – don’t raise your eyebrows at that statement, as he genuinely is a football obsessive – and soon his influence began to grow.

His super free-kick created the equaliser for John Stones and his passing began to get more of a tune out of Grealish but we never got a chance to see if it could be sustained in the second period, as the £100million man was taken off and the system was changed.

Southgate will call it game management, not losing a match when World Cup qualification is still to be secured. But 62 minutes is no time at all to see if something with the potential to be thrilling can work and take England forward. This experiment must be revisited.

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