The Nations League is a stepping stone for England

The UEFA Nations League landed on English shores on Saturday night with England taking on Spain at Wembley. But what can this new competition do to help propel Gareth Southgate’s new look England outfit to the top?

Increased competition

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard about the UNL and the motivations behind creating a new competition to be played during domestic football’s international break.

For quite some time many football fans have bemoaned the onset of the international break, not least in disrupting their team’s progress in the domestic league, but also because of the borefest friendly matches that it often brings with it.

For some time now England have been caught between two posts

Up until now the highlight of the international break is undoubtedly when big teams get drawn against each other in qualifying for major tournaments, but this often doesn’t happen. While we’re all delighted that England have managed to qualify for major tournaments with standout success, it’s not until they get to said tournament, like a World Cup or European Championship that England have really been able to test their mettle.

Glancing back over England’s qualifying groups over for the last four major tournaments it’s easy to see that England have been outright dominant - and therein lies the problem. For some time now England have been caught between two posts: dominating in qualifying and facing below par opposition where there’s no real test, to underachieving in major tournaments where the opposition in unmanageable.

England's last four qualifying campaigns

WC QF 2018

  • Games played: 10
  • Number of points: 26
  • Finished: 1st

Euro QF 2016

  • Games played: 10
  • Number of points: 30
  • Finished: 1st

WC QF 2014

  • Games played: 10
  • Number of points: 22
  • Finished: 1st

Euro QF 2012

  • Games played: 8
  • Number of points: 18
  • Finished: 1st

Perfect timing

The UNL couldn’t come at a better time for England. With a manager who is attempting to shake things up with a new philosophy and an eager, young squad well and truly behind him, the UNL is a welcome addition to England’s international calendar.

The very nature and structure of the UNL means England will get to meet stronger opponents in a competitive setting, to gain much needed experience outside of major tournaments. Because the UNL puts teams into leagues and groups according to their strength does away with having to face less skilled opposition.

It represents a better chance than anyone else in Europe to utilise it for their own gain

England are drawn into a three team group alongside two world class sides in Croatia and Spain. Because the groups are small means that the competition is fierce, to battle for only a limited number of points available. The winners get a chance to compete for a trophy against Europe’s best, and the losers get relegated. The stakes are high.

True, you could argue that the UNL’s League A, comprising Europe’s 12 best sides including England will sharpen everyone up, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But for a young and progressive England that’s on the ascent and are looking desperately for chances to improve, it represents a better chance than anyone else in Europe to utilise it for their own gain.

England put some impressive moves together against Spain

Three successive defeats

The English press are at it once again, they build you up only to knock you down. They love it, and there are headlines being bound around that following a 2-1 defeat to Spain at Wembley in the inaugural match of the UNL, it’s the first time England have lost three successive games since 1988.

The closer you fly to the sun, the greater your chances of getting burned

Three successive defeats? Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill here. It isn’t a problem. These three defeats have come against Croatia, Belgium and Spain in the semi-final of the World Cup, the third-place playoff and in a ferocious group in the UNL. The closer you fly to the sun, the greater your chances of getting burned.

Spanish lessons

England went up through an early Marcus Rashford goal on Saturday night, only to squander a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1, having a goal disallowed in the dying minutes of the game. Southgate himself has admitted that England were ‘disjointed’ in their attacking play, and that they struggled to push forward against a team that also wanted to press.

It's a process of developing tactical flexibility and awareness

There were other problems that were acutely apparent as well. England’s defence struggles to deal with set pieces, which is ironic considering that was their very modus operandi at the other end of the pitch in Russia. The question of having a world class midfielder to dictate play in the centre of the pitch needs to be answered as well.

But the very fact that Gareth Southgate said in his post match press conference that he couldn’t have asked more of his players goes to show where England need to improve. The manager obviously believes England have the talent and the capability in their ranks, but it’s rather a process of developing tactical flexibility and awareness.

“Brave enough to stick to our principles”

This is where the UNL can work to England’s advantage. Already after a tough match up against top quality opposition in Spain, it’s clearer to see what England need to work on. With matches coming up thick and fast against Croatia home and away and Spain away, don’t expect it to get any easier, but certainly don’t lose heart either if it appears difficult. As Southgate has said himself, there’s no going back to the old ways. This is an enlightened England that’s emerging. Expect there to be bumps along the way, but be certain that the UNL will work positively for their development.

England take on Switzerland in a friendly on Tuesday 11 September at the King Power Stadium in Leicester (KO: 20.00 BST)

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