England’s late drama at Wembley last Sunday, saw them claw back a win against the country that broke their hearts in Russia.
It was a win that rekindled already fond memories of that surprise run to the Semi-Finals at the World Cup. The unbridled joy that Harry Kane’s late winner brought to the team was evidence of a side that is enjoying playing and winning together.
However, more than joy, pride, and nostalgia, the Nations League has already shown how useful it can be for England and Gareth Southgate. The manager has been able to take his talented crop of players through four challenging and ultimately very telling fixtures, with England winning away in Spain and at home to Croatia, to top their group.
This cluster of competitive internationals will have taught Southgate more about the abilities and limitations of his young squad, than in any meaningless friendless or lukewarm qualifying fixture. The Nations League has already show in its infancy, that international breaks cans be more than just a frustrating interval to Premier League football.
In December, Southgate will learn who England will face in their qualifying group for Euro 2020. It’s hardly a serious date in any football fan’s calendar, as the National Team learns which configuration of third and fourth tier Baltic nations they will be playing over the coming two years.
The route to major tournaments has been any easy path for England over the years. They have lost just three matches in their European group qualifying campaigns since 2000, often waltzing through games in second gear.
However, in all honesty, matches against Slovenia, Estonia and Malta make for dire viewing and ultimately England Managers have been able to learn little from these fixtures. Players really shouldn’t be measured too much in these games either, as you seldom need to dig deep to win a match in Valletta or Tallin, when you have some truly world class talent in your ranks.
Often, England have swanned through their group qualifiers to reach a major finals, only to flounder the first time they encounter serious quality. Harsh at it may seem, the 2018 World Cup followed this same pattern.
Belguim and Croatia ultimately had too much for Southgate’s men in Russia. A lack of meaningful fixtures against serious opposition in tournament football has frequently left England sides unprepared and exposed. UEFA’s new flagship tournament offers a workable solution to this problem.
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The Nations League can offer England a frequent flow of suitably matched fixtures against better opposition, where they will be required to do more than just meander through a game in second gear.
Further more, the matches offer true incentives, such as promotions, play off places and a trophy to contest. Younger players can continue to develop in a truly competitive and more pressured situation.
Southgate has been blessed with a crop of really gifted players. It would be a great aide to their development if they were able to gain vital tournament experience from the Nations League.
Southgate will have learned more about his players from those two games with Spain and Croatia, than he would from a half baked friendly or qualification match. The players too will have gotten more than just mileage from their exploits. The manager will also have to deal with raised expectations, as many will hope to see some progress, after the basement low expectations of 2018. A tournament win for Southgate would be a tremendous feather in the cap, and going into 2019, is not too much of a distant possibility.
With a trophy to play for, as well as promotion and relegation on the table, the Nations League might just be best idea UEFA has had in years. It’s an opportunity that Southgate should embrace as he looks to build on the best year England have had for a long long time.