The main reason for England’s relative success at the 2018 World Cup was the simple fact that Gareth Southgate’s side were the first in an England shirt to take the careful, risk-free approach to tournament football that has long-since been the status quo for the national team in qualifying competition.
While a number of nations around the World simply struggle to qualify for international competitions, the bane of an England supporter’s life is the manner in which their team look so resolute in qualification only to then lose their nerve on the big day. Southgate managed to avoid that hurdle and as such took the nation to unparalleled heights in the modern game.
It’s with this in mind that the FA and Southgate’s backroom staff must prioritise the methodology used to maintain these high performances from largely inconsequential qualifiers to high-pressure knockout games. If they can, it may ensure England don’t revert back to their old self when Euro 2020 rolls around.
As can often be the case, the solution to such problems lies in the most unlikely of places. Rather than relying on specific training routines, glamour friendlies around the world or key players keeping their head straight through domestic football, Southgate may be able to utilise the very best from his squad and maintain his team’s high standards through UEFA’s new Nations League.
To suggest the new competition format has received a lukewarm response from football fans would be an understatement – one need only google “Nations League explainer” to understand the severity of it’s confusing set-up – but while the average football fan may roll their eyes at the thought of England taking a competition primarily designed to help smaller nations seriously, there’s plenty of merit to the idea.
Over the next four years, England’s fixtures will be broken down into four sections: international friendlies, 2022 World Cup qualifiers, Euro 2020 qualifiers and Nations League matches.
The first of these sections is currently and solely occupied by a friendly match against the United States in mid-November. After that it’s anyone’s guess who the FA will line up to best fill the stands at Wembley but it will undoubtedly be a series of matches that neither Southgate nor his team of stars are entirely interested in.
England’s qualification group for the next World Cup will also surely offer very little for Southgate to truly test his team against. With the utmost of respect to Malta, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Scotland, the last group offered just one match out of six – the 2-2 draw in Glasgow – in which Southgate’s side had to step out of first gear.
Similarly, England’s last qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championships consisted of San Marino, Switzerland, Estonia and familiar faces Lithuania and Slovenia. The next group, which will be drawn at the end of the year, is unlikely to offer anything more competitive. If the England manager hopes to keep his team sharp it won’t come from qualifying for the next two international tournaments.
Indeed, when Southgate and his team take a look at where they can focus their efforts on improving or evolving this young England team in the foreseeable future the only fixtures that stand out are four matches against Croatia and Spain in the coming Nations League.
While there’s little worry that each nation will be at the next European Championships, each of these teams will surely take the sudden hike in quality on the opposing side of the pitch far more seriously than a simple glamour friendly. Why? Because each nation has plenty of work to do.
Southgate may feel he has a whole squad to remould before 2020, but in Luis Enrique’s case with the Spanish national team he has the unenviable task of quickly identifying what went wrong at this summer’s competition and fixing it before it turns into a terminal decline. Similarly, Croatia manager Zlatko Dalić will be acutely aware of the fact that the team that reached the World Cup final just a few months ago is full of key players quickly approaching 30 or already long past it.