The Nations League makes its hardly awaited debut this week and all to a backdrop of widespread confusion and naysaying. Chief among the reasons for the negativity is the competition’s convoluted format that has confounded even the great and the good, while a concern grows that its drawn-out structure unnecessarily adds to an already choc-full footballing calendar. Both are legitimate gripes.
Yet as with any new creation there are also numerous positives to be sourced and as regards to Gareth Southgate’s England these presently – and quite considerably – outweigh the drawbacks. Indeed it could be argued that as the Three Lions prepare to take on Spain this Saturday evening at Wembley Stadium to begin their participation in UEFA’s lucrative invention England fans should be getting ready to fully embrace the Nations League. Or, at the very least, only view it with the mildest of scepticism.
Firstly though, should it not have been encountered elsewhere, a quick explanation of the tournament might be helpful.
With meaningless friendlies losing all relevance amidst the hyper-importance of club football UEFA felt the need to make a tournament out of them, separating the 55 countries into four leagues based on ranking. The leagues are divided further into groups of three or four who play one another home and away to determine a group winner who then compete in semi-finals and play-offs. The four best performers from these play-offs across the four leagues secure entry to Euro 2020 under the proviso of course that they have not already done so via conventional means.
Yes there are additionally promotions and relegations to factor in while the plucking of next-best alternatives from League A, even League B, should a play-off contender already be eligible for the Euros is a confusing proposition but let’s look past all of that for a moment and be optimistic: let’s assume that England have enough about them to qualify for 2020 in the traditional manner. This, after all, is hardly a stretch of the imagination given that they have sailed to the last five major tournaments and have smashed their previous two Euro campaigns, last losing a Euro qualifier nineteen games ago under Steve McClaren.
By ruling out any necessity to excel in the Nations League, and thus grab a second chance at Euro entry, what this assumption means is that it becomes – for the youngest squad at this summer’s World Cup – a tournament with training wheels; a competition without consequence. A Carabao Cup if you like of the international scene which is just about the most perfect, safe schooling for Southgate and his charges.
For no longer will England half-heartedly commit to ninety minutes against Bolivia or Honduras and walk off the pitch knowing precisely nothing more about themselves than when they kicked off. Now they pit their wits with equal peers – in this instance Spain and Croatia until Group A4 is concluded in mid-November – in a competitive environment designed to test their fortitude, shape and wiles and should they lose, well boo hoo, so what? It is, let’s not forget, only a friendly dressed up in a suit.
For Southgate this represents the best of both worlds and with a plethora of exciting teenage talent coming through the international ranks – the most note-worthy being Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho, and Ryan Sessegnon, not to mention 21 year old James Maddison who has announced himself this month on the Premier League stage – the Nations League offers a chance to blood them against elite fare in meaningful fixtures without the intense pressure and scrutiny that qualifying campaigns bring.
That the waistcoat-rocking coach has chosen not to do so at the first opportunity should not come as any great surprise. He was always going to retain his trust in much of the squad who navigated their way to the semi-finals in Russia; he was always going to favour evolution over revolution when the latter simply isn’t imperative. Moving forward however, as Mount adds to his 525 minutes of Championship experience; and Foden gains further valuable game-time in the absence of De Bruyne at Manchester City; and Maddison hopefully continues to tear into top flight opposition with confident relish, we can expect the England manager’s encouraging template to take on an even more youthful sheen.
Despite England’s successful World Cup venture they are still very much a project undergoing reconstruction, a development process that has now been afforded a shelter by means of the Nations League. Criticise the competition all you wish – find fault because there are many to find – but for England and Southgate the latest tinkering from UEFA could well prove to be hugely beneficial to their long-term goals.
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