To benefit fully from the Nations League, England must accelerate their evolution

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 8, 2018

England were scratchy and imprecise at Wembley on Saturday night and although Danny Welbeck had a late equaliser controversially ruled out, they deserved their 2-1 defeat to Spain. Not much went right. Disappointingly so, too, because the Nations League promises a slightly different tone to these international breaks and yet, by the time the final whistle sounded at Wembley, everything looked and sounded very familiar.

That was England’s fault, too. The crush outside Wembley Park will always encourage people to leave early and no UEFA marketing campaign can convince anyone that these fixtures are absolutely vital, but this was a chance to build further momentum and yet, regrettably, it was an opportunity squandered. Playing a team of Spain’s stature should always feel like a big deal, particularly when it’s framed by a properly competitive structure, but this was a friendly in all but name. England lulled in the same way and their concentration wavered as it always seems when there aren’t proper consequences in play.

Gradually, Wembley began to echoe with that hollow, chattering sound that betrays collective apathy.

Maybe it was naive to expect anything different. It was certainly optimstic to expect this game to grip the nation or for it to inspire any of that healthy, pit-of-the-stomach anxiety that we felt across the summer, but the atmosphere could have been sharper and more engaged.

Fundamentally, the Nations League is a positive development. Over time, it will regularly expose England to a far higher standard of opposition than they’ll see in their qualifying campaigns and, all things remaining equal, that should provoke some sort of evolution. Learning how to play top-tier teams is an essential part of this team’s education because, while Russia 2018 was clearly a success, it didn’t prove their ability to swim with the really big fish.

Of course, winning and playing well is the primary objective. Defeating teams who perennially lurk in the latter stages of tournaments will always bring certain intangibles. A secondary aim, however, might be to safeguard the public’s enthusiasm. England reclaimed a lot of goodwill over the summer and bottling that depends on Gareth Southgate’s players demonstrating that they are worth the investment – they may be likeable characters who are short on ego, but they must also show that they are in a state of sporting evolution, too.

With that in mind, it was a surprise not to see at least a glimpse of the next generation. There’s a clear and obvious case for continuity and, following the performance in Russia, few players deserved to lose their place. However, interest in any England game will always depend on the potential for seeing something new – a system, a level of performance, or a player.

Conversely, few will have bought tickets for Saturday’s game in the hope of seeing Adam Lallana or Danny Welbeck. Neither player has done much wrong but, then again, neither has done much at all – their inclusion was a bit too Old England, play-for-a-big-club-and-your-place-is safe England. It’s a bias and one which isn’t intended to denigrate either player, but then neither one is ever likely to become fundamental to this team’s hope of success and so – unkind as it sounds – neither serves any real purpose.

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England selection must be ruthless – that stands to reason technically, but also serves the public interest. Welbeck and Lallana aren’t this generation’s Downing and Walcott, but their age and club involvement probably makes them yesterday’s men. Their inclusion was charitable. Moreover, it was charitable in a way which England fans have learnt to resent.

That isn’t to say that over-promotion doesn’t come with risks. Elevating a player into a senior international set-up before he is ready (or before he has earned that privilege) can create entitlement, ego and all sorts of other festering negatives. It can also fire public interest, though, and as such it was disappointing that this England gathering hasn’t featured James Maddison, Phil Foden or Ryan Sessegnon. Mason Mount has started his Derby County loan spell very well and, given that he’s a straight arrow headed towards the top of the game, maybe there was room for him too? Within that small group exist the kind of technical attributes which England have been coveting for a very long time – the entire England DNA intiative was constructed in aid that search – so there should be no hesitancy in plucking that fruit.

In each case, it’s easy to rationalise the omission – Maddison’s self-confidence is already sky high, Foden doesn’t play nearly enough, and Sessegnon’s career needn’t be complicated at such a young age. Mount has never even played a Premier League game. Nevertheless, if the Nations League is to be a useful journey for England in which they experience the broad threat offered by a range of elite opponents, it might have made sense to pack all four for that trip. If the question is whether they’d be better served by the education on offer, then that’s definitely the case.

One thing is absolutely clear, though – and Spain further emphasised it: Russia was fun, but it’s over. Southgate and his support staff must now be thinking ahead. Qualification for the Pan-European Championships of 2020 is still the natural priority, but if England are to make any impression on that tournament then their mind must now be on players who could conceivably be involved. Forgetting Maddison, Foden, Sessegnon and Mount, that’s a group which also includes Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Trent Alexander-Arnold; with another two seasons of experience, both could feasibly be international starters and yet, on Saturday evening, neither saw the pitch. In all likelihood, they’ll both start next week’s friendly with Switzerland, but that’s an entirely different proposition – a lesser game, against a lesser opponent, in what will unfortunately only be a semi-competitive fixture. Not all international caps are of equal worth and so, while Southgate remains overwhelmingly in credit, that was a decision which was hard to understand.

Maybe this a frustration instructed by the past. Perhaps England’s failure to properly plan under previous managers has animated a desire for ultra-foresight and maybe that’s equally unhealthy. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to believe that a break from the past in every sense is a movement in the right direction and that being bold, almost to the point of being premature, is absolutely appropriate.

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