The months between international tournaments drift by aimlessly. One of the issues with UEFA’s qualifying competitions has traditionally been that, for nations of a certain standing, their vaguely competitive groups give little or no measure of progress. Insuring literal involvement in the final competitions is paramount, meaning that development of style or the honing of tactics is always a secondary concern.
Friendlies, we were told, were the place for experimentation. That was an environment in which it was safe to give a debut to a borderline player or to play with the idea of an extra centre-half. The trouble – obviously – is that friendly internationals have always been a false economy. Those games have often been shapeless and played at something less than full pace and without the pressure of consequences, they gave no indication of how a debutant or a tweak might hold up.
The Nations League might be a solution to that. Realistically, UEFA has overhauled its calendar for financial gain. The promise (or illusion?) of competitive football should fill stadiums and, in time, will probably also have a positive effect on the broadcasting rights, too. Clearly, it’s not a charitable initiative focused solely on fan engagement, but an attempt to monetise greater enthusiasm.
But that isn’t to say that England can’t benefit from the new format. The defeat to Spain was frustrating, a dull note after such an enjoyable summer, but it was educational too. Beyond the obvious importance of marking properly at set-pieces and settling back into a holding pattern after scoring goals – lessons no team should have to learn – it also showed the importance of more subtle aspects. The Spanish performed with great rhythm at times, picking their moments to apply pressure on the home defence and cut through it.
As yet, England are without that quality. There has been a gentle, stylistic evolution in recent years and British footballers no longer look fundamentally uncomfortable with the ball at their feet, but England still generally play in pulses – they exert themselves on games periodically, they rarely control them. Thinking back to that semi-final against Croatia, the difference between winning and losing was probably the presence of Luka Modric on one side and not the other, but it was also – more broadly – about game intelligence. The Croatians were smarter. Over the course of 120 minutes, they adapted to the way England were playing, adjusted to the threat they were posing and, from the moment Ivan Perisic equalised, their progress seemed inevitable. Part of that may have been conditioning, but it also suggested a superior footballing IQ – on the pitch and perhaps also in the technical area.
Being placed in the top division of the Nations League will serve England very well in that regard. Over time, it will expose them to a level of opposition they would only otherwise have encountered in the latter rounds of tournaments or, redundantly, in friendly competition. The effect is that of putting a child in a slightly higher set at school – initially, he or she will struggle, but over time exposure to that higher standard should inspire some sort of growth.
At best guess, England will find this a humbling experience in the short-term and be made to look limited by the continent’s elite. Over time, though, that experience will still be precious. It will provide Gareth Southgate the chance to think his way beyond that level of opponent and, perhaps through trial and error, the opportunity to adapt his team-selection and approach in a way which allows England to properly challenge.
It’s really the ideal scenario: the Nations League is competitive, but failing to succeed within it is hardly the end of the world.
Using the Spanish defeat as the most recent example, what is it that England need to do to stop those inevitable lulls in games? The World Cup was a success, but every game – Panama excepted – featured a clear drop in gears after which passes were loose and mistakes become more frequent. Why was that? It happened again on Saturday night – an authoritative start melted away within half-an-hour – so how can this issue be remedied?
Whatever the solution may be, the chances of finding it are far higher under these conditions – exposing England to the very best will reveal them for what they really are and, hopefully, further their education as a group.
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