England manager Gareth Southgate

England still to prove they can be more than just flat-track bullies

England’s narrow defeat to Spain at Wembley on Saturday night was yet another needling reminder of their recent record against top class opposition.

How ever you view the fledgling European Nations League, the games are being marked down as competitive encounters and will have an impact on England’s international standings. While they are unlikely to affect the national team’s participation in major competitions, they will no doubt serve as an indicator for England’s form. More importantly, they will provide a chance for Southgate to solve one of his biggest problems.

His team are flat-track bullies and have developed a recent habit of crumbling when faced with serious opposition. If he’s to have any hope of winning major honours during his stint in charge, this is something he’ll have to fix. The Nations League though, can offer him a chance to address this considerable issue.

Woeful record

It is probably still high treason to dare analyse England’s performance in Russia and come out with something other than high praise. However, the brutal reality remains. England played two top sides in three matches at the tournament and lost all three.

Yes both of the Belgium clashes were played in diminished circumstances, but in neither match did England get close or look capable of winning. They were also strangled out of the game by a superior, technically gifted Croatia side in the semis. The occasion seemed to get to England that night, despite taking an early lead which should have calmed a lot of nerves. Yes, it was England’s first major semi-final since 1996, but the lads didn’t look capable of seeing the match out.

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This is a harsh assessment of their efforts at the World Cup, but Southgate and his team will need to take such a view if they are to progress England to the required level.

England are fine in the qualifiers, losing just one competitive match in their toils to reach tournaments since 2010. However, when you consider that they have won just two knockout games in that same period it really is convincing proof that they are the quintessential flat-track bullies.

A closer look at their recent record against the better sides out there is also rather damning. England have lost thirteen times since the 13/14 season, of those defeats, six came in combined games against Germany, Spain and Belgium. Throw in defeats to plucky opponents like Uruguay and Chile, and a pretty grim picture is being painted.

Their woeful record against top class opposition will be a mental weight tethering their ankles, however the Nations League could be the remedy to this.

Show their teeth

There has been a lot of talk about England going into Euro 2020 as potential tournament winners. A lot of it has come from inside Southgate’s camp and it should be something for the England manager to keep a lid on.

There’s nothing wrong with confidence, but the focus should be on improving England to a point where they can actually best their peers. That’s ultimately how any good club or international side are judged.  The standard must be set high, if there is any hope of matching the impressive French crop fashioned by Deschamp.

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There is real quality in this current group, arguably more than in previous recent generations. However you cannot overstate how important it is for these players to learn how to win the big games. England still look incapable of bossing a game in terms of possession, for example, something that stronger teams play on as Croatia did in June.

The Nations League can give England the perfect opportunity to test themselves competitively and more often against better opponents. The defeat to Spain was a tad unfortunate, but they must start to show their teeth in these games. Friendly wins and controlling qualifiers away at Slovakia or Estonia, ultimately is not a suitable match up for a team setting it’s sites on a tournament win in the near future.

Southgate must use the three remaining games in his group, and any future matches against the better sides on the continent, as a practice for the real thing in 2020. An away day in Spain as well as two ties against Croatia will provide a chance for England to prove they are learning lessons. Once and for all, they could put down some strong foundations and finally turn the page on their time as flat-track bullies.

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