Sports Writer Jake Davies discusses the disappointing start to the 2020 UEFA Nations League, with England epitomising the tournament’s lack of impetus
The Nations League returned not with a bang, but with a whimper as the home nations got off to rocky starts.
Two years ago, UEFA’s international competition experienced a fresh and successful opening campaign. This saw the transition from friendlies to competitive league-based matches and created excitement over international breaks which were previously dull affairs. Pitching Europe’s strongest sides against one another in a group stage format worked wonders with promotions and relegations between leagues which urged lower-ranked sides to really engage in the new tournament. The finals may have been an admittedly quiet affair, but it was unquestionable that this new competition was an exciting prospect for the future.
Sadly, the second outing of the Nations League has not quite lived up to the expectations set by the first. With two matchdays completed, the competition has gone largely under the radar and underwhelming games have not helped to boost its status. Naturally, the lack of fans in stadiums is a major negative impact as their excitement and passion in competitive international fixtures regularly encouraged nations to fight harder in these games. The silence is deafening when watching the matches and clearly the players have been unable to engage as fully with the competition as they had last time.
This is also likely due to the interruptions to local league football, as many European leagues concluded mid-July and are yet to resume, thus the players are approaching these games almost as if they were pre-season friendlies, with little to play for. It is disappointing but, as the government looks for solutions in allowing some fans into the stadiums, the next match days in October and November could have a livelier atmosphere. As it stands, the elite national sides struggled to get into gear over the course of their opening two fixtures, resulting in numerous drab, low-scoring affairs with little to excite fans watching at home.
England are guilty of this complacency, earning four points from their first two matches, via a tight 1-0 win over Iceland followed by a painstakingly dull 0-0 stalemate with Denmark. Manager Gareth Southgate’s side struggled across both games to create chances against opposition which was more than happy to sit back and let the Three Lions attempt to break them down. Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, and Jadon Sancho were lost figures up front, rarely provided the service they needed and failing to produce final balls or decent finishes on those few occasions they managed to get on the ball.
Danny Ings, who scored 22 goals in the Premier League last season and only just lost out on the Golden Boot, was barely given 20 minutes of gametime across both games, despite his incredible form at the tail-end of last season. Hopefully, Southgate will give him a larger role in the squad next time out if he can maintain form through into the new season.
The lack of service to the forwards could be blamed upon the young, relatively inexperienced midfield which Southgate had at his disposal. Declan Rice, Phil Foden, and James Ward-Prowse were unable to break down Iceland’s resolute defence, ultimately relying on a late Sterling penalty to break the deadlock at the death, whilst the later dismissal of Foden and Mason Greenwood over a breaking of COVID-19 regulations meant that Southgate was forced to give a debut to Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips, who alongside Rice was uninspiring and negative in his approach against Denmark. These debutantes will likely play more of a role in the national side moving forwards, so Southgate will need to hone their talents to create a stronger, more deadly team before the next Nations League games come around.
Elsewhere, Wales performed the best out of the home nations with two hard fought 1-0 victories against Finland and Bulgaria. Meanwhile, Scotland built upon a 1-1 draw with Israel to earn their first win of this year’s campaign, emerging 2-1 victors against Czech Republic. Northern Ireland are still seeking their first win, after following up an average 1-1 draw with Romania with a crushing 5-1 defeat to Norway, as the British side were dismantled by Erling Haaland and his countrymen. Clearly, the home nations have much to work on going into matchday three.
The UEFA Nations League then may not have gotten off to the strongest of starts, but with the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly growing once more as the winter months draw in, Europe’s youngest competition may be one of the best ways to unite the British countries and excite the nation during local lockdowns. Southgate has much to contemplate with his new look England side, but should he be able to bring out the best in the Three Lions, the Nations League could be a cause of excitement over international breaks once more.
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