Anyone who has read my thoughts on the international game outside of the major finals tournaments will know that I am far from enamoured with the all too frequent international breaks, pointless friendlies and the mind-numbingly tedious qualification phases. Equally I have previously struggled to find the point of the fledgling UEFA Nations League (https://football-nerd.org/2018/09/07/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-what-is-the-point-of-the-european-nations-league/).
On Friday night as Croatia and England lumbered to a goalless draw in an empty stadium, I garnered further evidence to support my point of view that this was a poorly conceived attempt to breathe some kind of life into the stagnant international game that we have to endure between the major tournaments. Despite my misgivings however I still opted to watch Spain host England on Monday, more as something to do on an autumnal evening rather than with any great expectation of a display of scintillating football.
To my surprise, as the match unfolded I found I was actually pleased with my choice, as I thoroughly enjoyed watching an international match outside of a major tournament for the first time in a long time.
England’s start to the Nations League had been somewhat humbling with defeat at home to Spain in the opening match being followed up by that painful-to-watch goalless draw in Rijeka. The feel-good factor generated by their (over)achievement in Russia was in danger of being diluted, if not eradicated completely, by a return to the norm. It is probably fair to say that very few watching thus far expected anything but defeat in Spain and the increasing threat of relegation from the top tier of the league for England’s travails.
While the current Spain side may be nowhere near the level of the previous generation that won three major tournaments in a row, it was still difficult to see how Gareth Southgate’s charges could avoid to defeat let alone secure the victory they needed, especially considering that, either by the faith of the manager or necessity, this was the youngest England team that had taken to the field for fifty-nine years.
Despite reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in the summer for only the third time in their history and the positive feeing this generated, I can never shake off the feeling that England usually meet their comeuppance when they face opposition of real, bona fide quality. Certainly the opening Nations League results had done little to dispel this theory. Which is why the first half performance in particular on Monday night was as welcome as it was surprising.
Right from the kick-off the front three of Rashford, Sterling and Kane looked menacing and opened up Spain’s rear-guard, if not at will then certainly more easily than predicted. In the summer, nine of England’s twelve goals came from set-pieces, which while a clear indication of the attention to detail of the coaching staff, also hinted at a worrying inability to score from open play against organised defences, Panama obviously not included.
The three goals in Seville were all the result of the kind of incisive flowing football that we are used to seeing on a week-by-week-basis in the Premier League. Raheem Sterling looked like his Manchester City incarnation, Rashford the player that burst onto the scene a couple of years ago prior to his club manager shredding his confidence, and captain Harry Kane demonstrated the kind of creativity that, if he can combine with his obvious goal threat on a consistent basis, will elevate him to the very top levels of the world game.
As seasoned England watchers will know, one swallow does not make a summer and we have been here before with our national team. As television pundit Jamie Carragher suggested it was reminiscent, at least in part, of the 5-1 demolition of Germany in the days before the ‘Golden Generation’ failed to deliver.
What is undeniable however is the progress that is being made under Gareth Southgate and the very obvious reinvigoration of the team and the reigniting of the support of the fans. From the rubble of the capitulation to Iceland in Nice in Euro 2016, England’s lowest point for several decades, we now have a team that, while it may not go on to succeed where others have failed, at least offers hope for a brighter future and is much more enjoyable to watch than it has been for many a season.
From the outset the Nations League has seemed to be an ill-conceived tournament, but the game on Monday night, as well as the France v Germany game the following evening, at least showed that adding a competitive element elevates these matches above the interminable rounds of meaningless friendlies and stroll-in-the-park qualification groups that generated so much apathy towards the international game.
Far be it from me to give any credit to UEFA but for once their meddling with the structure of the game has had a relatively positive effect by sparking some interest in the international breaks that irritatingly interrupt the flow of club football. Although of course, in true style, once the Nations League reaches it culmination at Wembley in June, we are then faced with more of what had bored us all in the first place with the Euro 2020 qualification groups. For now though while I won’t necessarily be looking forward to the next international break in November, it does at least promise to be slightly more tolerable than in previous years.