Why Did the Nations League Go so Wrong and Should We Panic About It?

Work to be Done: Gareth Southgate will have hoped for much better than third place this month

It was mid-March when Gareth Southgate spoke of his worries about the Champions League. He was concerned that prolonged involvement in the competition by English clubs could “make a mess” of his plans to win the Nations League.

Over three months later, and nearly a fortnight since his side’s extra-time collapse to the Netherlands, the England manager would likely stand by these comments if quizzed on them today.

The Three Lions went into the tournament with high hopes of lifting a first major trophy for 53 years. Three of the squad had just won the Champions League, while a further four had reached the final.

And England themselves have improved rather than faltered since the World Cup – beating three Top 10 sides on the way to winning that blockbuster Nations League group featuring Croatia and Spain. Even in March, they managed to hit ten goals in just two games against sides both in the world’s Top 50.

The overriding mood then was one of positivity, maybe even expectancy that a tournament in Portugal, including them and a resurgent Dutch side, could and perhaps should be very winnable indeed.

But, England’s performance against the Netherlands was suspect throughout. It was probably wise that they allowed the Dutch to regularly possess the ball and tried to simply limit the men in orange to risk-free passing. For the most part, that worked.

Controlling the Tempo: There were times in the semi-final where Frenkie de Jong seemed to be running proceedings, and England’s midfield went missing at key moments

England played smash-and-grab football and took a rather unmerited lead when Marcus Rashford nipped in to earn a penalty from young sensation Matthijs de Ligt’s dreadful error. Rashford’s penalty was confident and precise and had England one-up at the break.

As the evening went on the Netherlands’ share of proceedings was only increasing, though. No ‘I’m shattered from the recent Champions League final’ excuse could be used. Southgate had started not one of the seven players involved; Ronald Koeman had started both of his. Ironically and inevitably, these two [Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum and Virgil van Dijk] were running the show.

De Ligt’s bullet header on seventy minutes really did seem to kill England. They had been holding on for just a few moments too long and Holland more than deserved their equaliser. And so began the mistakes. The night went on and on and on, and the catastrophic errors from John Stones and Ross Barkley eventually ruined Southgate’s hopes of a major final.

The papers picked these to discuss, understandably. This was the obvious line of blame. But was that really what most inflicted defeat upon England? No. That would be weight-of-pass.

Watching England is actually a reasonably uplifting task in recent years. But one issue that has always plagued the national team, probably since the Second World War, is the power or strength at which a pass is played to a teammate.

Error Prone: England’s defenders are given a high level of responsibility in the way they’re set up to play. That all seemed a little too much to handle against the Netherlands

Watch any football match ever played in its entirety, and you will notice that an under-hit pass usually leads to the receiver playing backwards. An over-hit pass catapults off the pitch and out of play.

But a well-hit pass tends to be taken in well, played out of the receiver’s feet in one or two touches, and passed forward. Even better, and usually by a fullback or unmarked winger, a well-hit pass can lead to a foray forward into the box or a dangerous dribble into the final third.

Too often against the Netherlands and Switzerland, England passes were under-hit. This sometimes led to opposition players nicking the ball and starting counter-attacks. But even when this wasn’t the case, the ball would go backwards and any opportunity for England to make attacking inroads was lost.

England must be concerned. Their performances in both games were below par. One thing is for sure – there simply isn’t this margin for error come next summer and a European Championships campaign basically on home soil. The quality of play from England’s backline in transitioning out from the back will need to be much better than what we saw this month.

Pushing to Start: Trent Alexander-Arnold continued his meteoric rise this season. He put more crosses into the box against Switzerland than any England player has in a single game since David Beckham over a decade ago

However, there is another side of the story to tell.

Many would feel it’s worth noting that England actually won both of their matches at the Nations League finals late on, in dramatic fashion, if it hadn’t been for VAR. The smallest and cruellest of margins denied Jesse Lingard his late winner against the Dutch, before Callum Wilson’s equally dramatic goal against Switzerland was also chalked off – this time for what seemed a slightly soft shove.

It’s far from the first time England have been left on the wrong side of controversial refereeing decisions. Even in this modern era of VAR, the Three Lions have already had some frustrating moments. The Tunisia and Colombia matches of the 2018 World Cup jump out as just two examples.

Even if England had been annihilated in the final by Portugal, even knocking out Holland and reaching the final would have shown progress, rather than the narrative we’re hearing instead: that England have taken a step backwards.

England played poorly against the Netherlands, but Gareth Southgate was keen to point out in his post-match press conference that Holland didn’t create a single opportunity of their own accord all night. And it was true. Discounting the stupid errors that England committed in defence, Holland didn’t produce anything of note.

That will please Southgate, as correcting quick fixes are by definition easier than having to start from scratch and form a new masterplan.

Tough Night: Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker and John Stones all gave poor showings against Holland, but remain the bedrock of England’s defence

So is there really any cause for concern? Have England taken a step backwards? Well, not really. They failed to win the Nations League because they made silly, needless, easy-to-correct errors. The staff at St George’s Park can work on weight-of-pass and on defenders clearing their lines when the time is right.

Portugal and Holland didn’t make the final by playing superior football to England. They progressed simply because they didn’t make so many errors…and because they kept the ball.

Gareth Southgate and his side should take immense confidence from even reaching these finals. Especially as Spain appeared to have Group 4 wrapped up after just two games.

But these finals were hardly all doom and gloom. Yet more invaluable experience was provided with a second successive penalty shootout win. Here, teenager Jadon Sancho stepped up to score one of England’s successful spot-kicks. Six out of six found the back of the net and then Pickford leapt a couple of metres to win the bronze medal match.

Deserving Praise: After a testing few hours of football throughout their stay in Portugal, it showed immense character from England to finish the job by producing a textbook penalty shootout display

England are still well on track to genuinely challenge for UEFA Euro 2020. Anyone suggesting Southgate needs sacking or that the squad isn’t good enough to win the tournament has failed to spot the distinct lack of faultless national teams at this moment in time.

Come next summer, when England are lining up to face France in a Wembley semi-final, the players must approach the game knowing they’re truly at the forefront of international football. Nothing has changed – England can still beat anyone. It’s just that they didn’t this month…

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