The new UEFA Nations League is next on the agenda for England, although it hasn’t yet caught the imagination of the country. However, Gareth Southgate is looking forward to the prospect of competing in it over the autumn and testing the player’s again against their first Nations League group rivals, Spain and Croatia.
Southgate knows that his young squad did well at the World Cup, reaching a first semi-final since 1990, but he also knows there is still lots of work to do. One major issue that needs attention is how they play in midfield and how they can cope with teams that are technically better than them. Something England teams have struggled with for decades.
In their semi-final against Croatia, England were worn down and eventually had control of the midfield wrenched from them by Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. An early 1-0 lead became a 2-1 extra-time defeat as England toiled under pressure and started to hit long balls. Despite being patient and sticking to their game plan against lesser opposition earlier in the tournament, when they faced the likes of Croatia and Belgium, they failed to keep the ball in midfield, be patient, and make the link between the defence and attack.
Southgate admitted, without actually saying it, that his hands were tied by the type of player that he has at his disposal. Obviously, Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard can’t be blamed for England’s apparent midfield failings – but they were shown up by the Croats and Belgians.
What is the UEFA Nations League?
England will now play four games in the UEFA Nations League, which will be another test of Southgate’s young team. Instead of the usual low-pressure friendlies and qualifiers against mediocre sides who often just sit back and defend, England have competitive games against good teams to look forward to, almost as soon as the season starts.
The UEFA Nations League is made up of Europe’s 12 top-ranked sides who have been divided into four groups of three. The four winners of each group will then play off for the inaugural trophy next summer. In less than two months, England host Luis Enrique’s Spain at Wembley on 8 September, where their midfield will go up against the likes of Isco, Thiago, David Silva, Sergio Busquets and the rest. A real test.
They then travel to Rijeka on 12 October to face Croatia again in a game that will be played behind closed doors due to charges brought against the Croatian FA for racist chanting from their fans at previous home games. In October, England travel to Seville to face Spain before welcoming Croatia to Wembley in November.
The Nations League could be a great idea and a far better use of international breaks than pointless friendlies or qualifying games against one of Europe’s minnows. All in all, it makes for the most competitive and exciting autumn programme for any England team in memory.