Given the experimental selections, exhausted players and empty stadiums bar excitable schoolchildren, England’s end-of-season Nations League games have felt a little like the international friendlies that they were supposed to replace. Case in point: when the final whistle sounded on Saturday’s goalless draw with Italy, not one of Gareth Southgate’s players out on the pitch looked especially disappointed with the result. That was entirely understandable at the end of a long, hard and hectic campaign.
At least this fourth and final outing against Hungary will be the first at home – or Molineux, at least – in front of a full crowd, and the first with a sense of mild peril about it too. Anything less than a win for England and progressing to the Nations League finals this time next year will look extremely difficult. Lose and, ahead of a trip to the San Siro and the visit of Germany to Wembley in September, the prospect of relegation into the competition’s second tier will suddenly feel very real.
Admittedly, that still does not sound too perilous. The Nations League introduced the concept of relegation to international football four years ago and, four years on, it is still hard to take it as seriously as its club equivalent. The whole idea was rather undermined when, a few months after the inaugural edition had finished, Uefa granted a reprieve to those nations who finished bottom of their groups so that they could revamp and expand this new, oddly successful tournament.
Still, not getting relegated is certainly better than getting relegated, and Southgate could do with a result this evening in any case to end a difficult fortnight on a positive note. England are without a win in three games, their longest stretch in almost four years. More worryingly, they have not scored a goal from open play during this camp, with just Harry Kane’s penalty against Germany to show for their efforts. The over-reliance on their captain and Raheem Sterling for goals is becoming harder and harder to ignore.
It should be noted that Southgate’s side are not the only major nation to have struggled. Germany may have had the better of the meeting at the Allianz Arena a week ago but they were subsequently held by Hungary in Budapest and are still waiting for their first win. France, the reigning champions, are also winless and bottom of a more favourable group on paper. Cramming these games in now, at a time when players at top European clubs are especially fatigued, has led to some surprising results.
And though England, France and Germany could be tempted to shrug off these games as glorified friendlies, they are not. These are competitive games that carry weight. Performances in this year’s Nations League do not only determine who they play in the next edition of this competition. They also decide the seeding for the European Championship qualifiers. As it stands, England will not be one of the 10 top seeds in October’s draw. If they want to be, they need to start picking up points.
Southgate is all too aware of this. “We are in the [Nations League] group we are in this time, which is tougher than most, because of the Nations League last time, so there is always a consequence of that,” he explained. After finishing third in their Nations League group last time around, England were third seeds in September’s draw and ranked below every other major western European nation, hence them being paired with both Italy and Germany.
That and their underwhelming results during this camp has consequently damaged their hopes of a favourable qualifying draw for the Euros. “When we’ve had what have looked like kind draws in some of the competitions, it’s because we’ve been playing well over a long period of time and we’ve had the ranking,” Southgate added. “Equally if we don’t get the results, then we will suffer.”
At this point, it should be noted that it is incredibly difficult not to qualify for the 24-team Euros as a major nation. The top two in each group will automatically qualify and others will find their way in through the back door. Of the 55 teams to contest qualifying for Euro 2020, only 19 failed to at least reach the play-offs. But that does not mean the journey there is easy, and the lesson of Italy’s descent from European champions to World Cup no-shows demonstrates that nothing can be taken for granted.
The problem is that Southgate’s job, particularly during this camp, is one big balancing act. While mindful of the need to get results to maintain England’s steady sense of progress under his management, he has to focus on success at the next major tournament above all else. That means Nations League survival or seeding for qualifiers is not really a priority. Where England may be in October’s draw is a “consideration”, he said yesterday, but “not primary” to him.
“What I don’t want to do is put a team out and we end up with a serious injury and we’ve lost a player for the World Cup because I’ve put them in at the wrong time,” Southgate added, still five months out from Qatar. “So we’ve got to make sure that those decisions are the right ones as well, even though I know there is a consequence, personally, for not getting the result you want.”
In an ideal world, England would have approached all four of these Nations League games as important games in and of themselves, with full-strength line-ups in each. But as Southgate points out: “There’s got to be bigger objectives than that.”