When the Nations League was introduced four years ago it felt like a good idea. Replacing the friendly merry-go-round with structured, competitive football against teams of a similar level to you. Who could argue with that?
But at Molineux last night, as England slogged through their third out of their four Group A3 games this month, in front of only a few thousand enthusiastic schoolchildren, to dutifully complete a 0-0 draw with Italy that will be remembered by no one who was here and fewer who watched on TV at home, it was difficult not to feel that the air (of interest, of drama, of emotional investment) has drained out of this particular balloon.
This was a match of no goals and not many noteworthy events. Mason Mount hit the bar in the first half, Raheem Sterling blazed over from a good position in the second half. Italy had less of the ball but were maybe slightly better with it, making good chances for Davide Frattesi, Sandro Tonali and Gianluca Scamacca. Aaron Ramsdale made some good saves.
But this game never had anything approaching tension, intensity, drama, none of the basic energies that make up the atmosphere of football.
Much of this was down to the lack of a full crowd. The young fans tried their best but ultimately this felt less like the cauldron of children in Budapest last Saturday — there was not one single vuvuzela at Molineux — and more like a return to the bad old days of 2020 and 2021.
Gareth Southgate said afterwards that the empty stands made it harder to maintain momentum, and it had been “incredibly difficult” for the players to go from two hard away games last week in Hungary and Germany into a “home” fixture in which England had no obvious advantage.
And if that hot day last summer overwhelmed the senses and the nerves, showing the extremes of emotion and behavior that football throws up then, well, this was the polar opposite.
The best thing you can say was that the first half had a certain breezy openness to it. The kindest euphemism is that it had an “end of term” feel.
And it had a quality common to the friendlies the Nations League was dreamt up to replace, which is that substitutions made it worse not better, disrupting what little flow there was.
By the end, this looked like an exercise in getting enough minutes into enough legs to keep the players ready for the rematch with Hungary back here on Tuesday, when there will be a crowd, without risking injury. None of the England players looked especially frustrated to have drawn the game nil-nil.
There is always a temptation after a poor result — and especially after a run of them — to blame Southgate.
England now have two points from their first three 2022-23 Nations League games over the past eight days with just one goal, and that was a Harry Kane penalty late on to snatch a draw in Munich on Tuesday night. Those are very slim pickings. They are in the relegation spot at the bottom of their group at the halfway stage, needing a win on Tuesday over the Hungary side who outplayed them last weekend.
As was the case after Tuesday, if you want to blame Southgate for all this, you have plenty of ammunition.
Not even the most devoted waistcoat-wearing Garethista would argue that England are playing well at the moment, that they have impressed in these three games, or that they striking fear into the hearts of Germany, France, Brazil and Argentina right now as the next World Cup looms. Clearly they are not.
But the sad reality of this mini-campaign, tacked onto the end of an exhausting season, is that Southgate is having to train and prepare his team for games that, deep down, he must know should not even be taking place.
All week, he has been talking about how he is using these games to experiment, to try things and look at players, rather than going all out for 12 points out of 12 and a shot at the finals involving the top tier’s four group winners this And he has been careful not to criticise the schedule itself.
On Monday, at his press conference before the Germany away game, Southgate declined to get involved in whether it made sense to have four games in this break at the end of a long season. , ”He said,“ because I’m working with the players. The mindset of this group is: We’re going to push and we want to perform well. ”
But in the Molineux press room last night, Southgate gave his clearest answer yet that these games are essentially a set of inconvenient hurdles to be safely negotiated for him and his team, rather than what this competition was initially sold as in the first place.
Southgate compared it to the Nations League campaign of autumn 2020: six games against Belgium, Denmark and Iceland played in front of a sum total of zero fans because of pandemic restrictions on crowds that left zero trace on the collective football memory, and which were themselves especially as the first two came effectively during pre-season, when the players had only just returned from their delayed summer breaks after the 2019-20 club season was extended into August for some by those three months of lockdown.
It is telling that this is not the first time Southgate has been left trying to prepare his team for games that have little justification beyond keeping the show on the road.
“It’s a bit like the Nations League was two years ago,” he said, “when you’re managing minutes as you would in a pre-season. That is incredibly complicated when you want to be honing the team and fine-tuning things ahead of the World Cup, but that’s not the situation we’re in.
“Of course there is the desire to win the games, but there is a bigger objective at the end of the year as well.”
It might well be that World Cup starting five months from next week is the only thing keeping so many England players fit and ready for this particular camp.
In years gone by, four international matches in June would surely see a raft of withdrawals. And these England players would not be human if they were not slightly jealous of their club colleagues who have been on holiday in Miami, Ibiza, Las Vegas or wherever but no one wants to get in Southgate’s bad books when he is about to pick his squad for Qatar 2022. else for the last three weeks.
All the same, it is the players — even more than Southgate — who pay the price for these extra games.
Remember that most of this squad had just five weeks between the Euros final on July 11 and Premier League kicking off on the weekend of August 14-15. Many started last season drained and then have played non-stop ever since.
This game was Jack Grealish’s 50th of the season, Sterling’s 55th, Declan Rice’s 58th and Mount’s 62nd. England’s best players could barely have played more if they’d wanted to. But then, how much control can we expect the players to have over the calendar, even though they are the ones putting their bodies on the line?
This four-game campaign (more than many teams have to play at an international tournament) is the product of the World Cup in Qatar, whose hosting of the tournament is controversial for the reasons described in this article, vacating the traditional June and July window and also taking over two of the autumn international breaks.
That gap had to be filled by something and UEFA had four rounds of Nations League games to play — the final two sets of group matches are in September — before Euro 2024 qualifying begins next March.
So you can blame FIFA for giving the World Cup to Qatar. Because if it were being staged anywhere else on the planet it would be happening right now, and these Nations League games would be safely on hold until the usual September, October and November international breaks.
And you can blame UEFA for inventing the Nations League, prioritising their commercial interests over their regulator duties, ensuring we are now in an era of permanent semi-competitive football.
But on nights like this, at the end of an exhausting 10-month season, when the players try their best but appear to have half an eye elsewhere, it feels clear enough who benefits from these games happening, and who does not.
(Photo: Claudio Villa / Getty Images)