Perhaps we were still caught up in the romance of England’s summer fling in Russia, perhaps we were just excited to see the Three Lions partake in a genuinely challenging competitive fixture outside of a major international tournament, but England’s inaugural embarking of the Nations League last month felt like a truly encouraging moment for not only English football but also UEFA’s new competition, designed to revolutionise the often mind-numbing humdrum of international breaks.
It ended in defeat for the Three Lions at the hands of Spain and reminded England fans that the summer’s surprise march to the 2018 World Cup semi-final was exactly that – an incident that defied probability. There is still much work for Gareth Southgate to do if England are to reach that stage of international tournaments regularly, or better yet surpass them to lift a major honour.
But such heavy grounding after the highs of the summer is precisely why the Nations League can be so beneficial to England. Teams like Spain provide the tough lessons the Three Lions need to learn from, like how a talented midfield can easily push back Southgate’s offensive-minded, idiosyncratic formation into a far less expansive 5-3-2, to move up to the next calibre of international sides.
Already though, it feels as if opinions on a competition that has officially been in action for just over a month are changing for the worse. Far from transforming international football into something that genuinely excites a worldwide audience, that makes meaningless, disinterested and often completely disjointed friendlies a matter of the past, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has described the Nations League as “the most senseless competition in the world.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t expect much else from a Premier League manager, for the battle between club and country – in English football at least – has become a never-ending one, but there are signs that Southgate is taking the competition with a pinch of salt too. Southgate has rightly taken a long-termist approach to the England tenure, his new contract acknowledging that by taking the England boss through to the end of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but his latest squad includes a staggering seven players yet to be capped at senior level, two from the Championship, five who are yet to make three league starts this season and seven aged 21 or younger.
Bearing in mind England’s injury problems, with a number of the World Cup heroes absent, that squad would be more than understandable for the kind of the meaningless friendlies that have unfortunately littered international football over the last few decades. But these trips to Croatia and Spain will essentially decide whether England are relegated into League B – they’re competitive fixtures by design – and the consequences of that should not be taken lightly.
The idea of throwing on Mason Mount or starting Nathaniel Chalobah doesn’t breed huge confidence in England’s chances of beating two talent-laden sides they’ve already lost to within the last four months on the road, and although the injury list is a considerable one lets not forget some of the quality and proven international players that have been left at home – Daniel Sturridge, Ashley Young, Ryan Bertrand, Jonjo Shelvey, Joe Hart and Theo Walcott to name a few. All have featured prominently for their clubs this season, and some have been amongst the Premier League’s better performers.
And if Southgate’s already adopted a cynical perspective of the Nations League, he could really be missing a trick here. First and foremost, as already discussed, it’s easily England’s best chance of learning through experience between tournaments, because it puts the Three Lions up against the top sides in the world in a competitive context – surely a vital asset for this incredibly young England contingent. Drop down to League B though, and the calibre of sides is far less thrilling: Wales, Russia, Austria, Slovakia, Sweden, Bosnia, Ireland, Turkey and Denmark. These players won’t gain much from beating countries England have always historically been better than.
But perhaps even more pertinent than that is how Nations League relegation could affect arguably Southgate’s greatest achievement as England boss – re-establishing a long-lost connection between the national team and the fans. Of course, the highs of the World Cup played a big part in that, as did much of the increased engagement with the media.
But treating Nations League fixtures with essentially the same seriousness as friendlies while compelling England to face a much less enticing calibre of opponent is a sure-fire way to reviving the disillusionment among the fan base. Whereas the teams in League A give cause for genuine excitement around England fixtures, the idea of a conquerable challenge those in the stands can rally behind, switching between League B games, friendlies and qualifiers against much lesser nations certainly does not. It takes England games back to feeling far more like a chore than a treat for supporters.
Perhaps Southgate will throw a few surprises and stick to strong starting XIs for both games – only using his seven uncapped recruits as impact players, giving them experience of the camp and a few minutes on the pitch rather than throwing them in at the deep end. But for England, the Nations League represents a winnable competition with an abundance of benefits – taking it too lightly could undo much of the good work Southgate’s already done as England manager and puts the quick development the Three Lions have shown under his tutelage in serious danger of petering out.