How Seriously Will England Take the Nations League?

John Sibley/Reuters

by Dom Smith

Kevin de Bruyne made the news this week. And it wasn’t for one of his outrageous assists or a rasping hit from range. The Manchester City ace was irrepressible in the second half of the season, crowned Premier League Player of the Season on a fans vote.

But this time De Bruyne made headlines not for his feet but for his mouth. The Belgium ace criticised the UEFA Nations League, saying it was “unimportant” and calling the matches “glorified friendlies after a long and tough season.

“I’m not looking forward to it”, he added.

That really is a damning assessment of a competition which, before Covid-19 came along to further complicate the ever-expanding football calendar, was seen as a smart invention by European football’s governing body. However, De Bruyne can be a dogmatic character at times, and probably stands by his comments. And to be fair, England took 20 years to be convinced the World Cup was worth entering. Sometimes appeal takes time to snowball.

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But perhaps there’s more at play here than De Bruyne being tired and the Nations League not having established a place in football folklore (yet). You wouldn’t get an England player coming out and saying what the Belgian star said. And that’s not just because of their respect for Gareth Southgate and for good PR.

Southgate has intentionally developed a culture in his team whereby the greatest players from the greatest clubs in the country eagerly await the next international break. They actively want to take that long drive down the path at St George’s Park, meet up with their friends, and keep themselves fit and available — even for international breaks when the opponents are significantly weaker than the Three Lions. Southgate was able to name a strong squad in November when the opponents were lowly Albania and FIFA’s lowest-ranked side San Marino. The culture at England makes this possible.

Even aside from wanting to report for England duty, Southgate and his players can see that the Nations League is three things. Firstly, it is most certainly not a collection of “glorified friendlies”. These are competitive matches with something on the line. There is no occasion when relegation feels good. Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson have never experienced what that feels like. Only in a particularly bad Nations League campaign might they.

Secondly, the competition is also a chance to win a trophy. England haven’t won one since 1966. Le Tournoi, 25 years ago this summer, does not count because it wasn’t major in any sense of the world. We can debate whether the Nations League is a ‘major’ tournament, but at least it has ‘UEFA’ in front of its name.

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But where De Bruyne’s thinking has come up short is on the importance of the Nations League in helping national teams develop continuity and a sustainable style of play in a world where they meet up for about 10 days once every three months. Southgate’s England used the first Nations League campaign to blood the likes of Ben Chilwell and Jadon Sancho, and to revert away from 3-5-2 to a flat back four.

England beat Spain and Croatia competitively in that 2018/19 campaign, reaching the final four and suddenly there was the very real prospect of silverware. An extra-time collapse against the Netherlands will have taught the England staff and players a great deal — offering teachings which a Saturday afternoon friendly against New Zealand or Romania simply would not. In the third-place playoff there was the chance to win a second penalty shootout in a row, following their win over Colombia in 2018. England won again. Knowledge through experience, the best type of knowledge.

The Nations League of 2020/21 was delayed and then heavily impacted by the pandemic, and England struggled to get into any rhythm. But it was here that they began to interchange between a back four and a back three again, paving the way for the tactical adaptability that helped them reach the final of the Euros last summer.

As the third Nations League campaign comes into view, this is arguably the most important yet. This is the first where it has fallen in the same year as a major tournament — because of the awkwardly placed and all-round bizarre Qatar World Cup this winter.

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England have just six matches left until the World Cup. All are in the Nations League, and four are this month. Playing Italy, Germany and Hungary is excellent preparation for a tournament where all of Europe’s best national teams (barring Italy…) are joined by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. No easy task.

Southgate explained where his priorities lie when speaking to at a press conference in March. The England manager said about this edition of the tournament: “We definitely want to do well in it. We’ve always used every competition to look at young players at the right time and try to keep winning matches. The first Nations League, we played [Joe] Gomez and [Ben] Chilwell and Harry Winks in Spain. It was one of the youngest teams that had been fielded at that point.” England struck three goals in 38 minutes to hand Spain their first competitive home defeat in 17 years.

“So we’ve always thought: if players are doing well and we think they’re capable, then we’ll play them. It’s going to be a really good test in terms of the quality of the fixtures, and an important stepping stone to keeping the connection with the players and continuing to improve on the detail because we’re not going to have that time immediately before the tournament. So every session on the coaching pitch is really important.”

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So for Southgate, this competition matters. Jarrod Bowen and James Justin are likely to earn their England debuts. But strong line-ups will be named where possible. Ahead of the World Cup especially, squad continuity is crucial. So is picking up positive results.

Southgate’s No 1 Jordan Pickford can also see that having the World Cup so close gives this month’s and September’s Nations League matches added importance. On Tuesday he told “We always try different formations over the last few years. It’s about us winning football matches and [having] that competitiveness. Having that pressure to win football matches is massive for us and puts us in good stead going into the World Cup. So it is a good time to play.”

De Bruyne put safely back in his box. Expect changes, yes. But expect England to go for it.

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