What success – or failure – in the Nations League could mean for England
After England won the World Cup in 1966, they suffered a slump. Alf Ramsey’s side made the quarter-finals in 1970, but failed to qualify for two subsequent World Cups and two European Championships.
After England reached the semi-finals of Italia ‘90, they suffered a slump. Graham Taylor’s side squeezed through qualifying for Euro ‘92, but failed to win a single game at the tournament and promptly failed to qualify for the next World Cup.
After Euro ‘96, England suffered a slump. Despite an extraordinary generation of young players coming through, England were knocked out in the last-16 at the 1998 World Cup and tumbled out of the group stage at Euro 2000. They would win one knockout tournament match in eight years.
Not only have England been forced to settle for infrequent glimpses of success, they have subsequently allowed the goodwill generated by that success to dissipate too quickly. That suggests two things: that success has been the result of circumstance or short-lived inspiration rather than through any grand masterplan, and that England have been guilty of an inherent complacency that borders on arrogance. As inventors of the modern game, England allowed others to catch up and overtake while they back-slapped.
This was the challenge that faced Gareth Southgate post-World Cup 2018. In his final press conference of the tournament, Southgate insisted that Russia had to be the start of something special, a stop along the journey rather than the destination. England’s manager would avoid creating a suffocating pressure for his players, but there’s nothing wrong with ambition and expectation. Both are inevitable byproducts of success.
The UEFA Nations League was the perfect tournament arriving at the perfect time for Southgate. Had England missed out in a tough group, nobody would have mourned. But by getting through with victories in Spain and against Croatia, England both exorcised World Cup demons and emphatically answered the criticism that they hadn’t beaten a high-class opposition. It’s rare that any high-profile manager faces a situation in which he has more to gain than lose, but the Nations League qualification campaign represented exactly that.
The finals are the same. Lose to Netherlands in the semi-final and there will be disappointment, but not outrage. Triumph in Portugal and Southgate can become only the second England manager in history to lift a major trophy. That the Nations League is still in its embryonic stage helps Southgate. He can spin its importance to fit England’s performance.
Whatever happens in Portugal, Southgate deserves congratulation for the direction he has taken England over the last year. For all the goodwill generated by our World Cup performance, many England supporters anticipated an ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ mood enveloping the squad. The Nations League group draw hardly dissuaded those suspicions.
But Southgate has taken England on, not back towards their mean. He has been brave enough to alter their formation from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 to build the attack around Raheem Sterling and been rewarded with Sterling’s rise as a regular goalscorer. He has found the right balance between loyalty to the World Cup squad and bringing in new faces, and he has been more prepared than most England managers to forge a pathway between the underage and senior squads. Over half of the squad for the Nations League finals are aged 25 or younger.
Having guided England through a World Cup campaign more successfully than any manager since Bobby Robson, Southgate has earned our faith, patience and goodwill. Now he has a wonderful chance to maximise the potential of that goodwill. Succeed in Portugal, and Southgate and England will have the landmark achievement that would truly propel them on to Euro 2020.
While you're here, why not take advantage of our brilliant subscribers' offer? Get the world's greatest football magazine for just £9.50 every quarter – the game's greatest stories and finest journalism direct to your door for less than a couple of pints. Cheers!