5 things to look out for as the Nations League returns
International football finally returns, what are the key things to keep our eyes on?
The last iteration of UEFA’s Nations League proved international football outside of the major tournaments can still be worthwhile – especially when we’re usually fed a diet of underwhelming friendlies and qualification ties that pit minnows against Europe’s best.
This time out there are World Cup places up for grabs, while several groups feature some big sides going head-to-head.
Here’s what we’ll be looking at this weekend…
A backdoor to the World Cup
While the Nations League doesn’t provide a direct door to the World Cup, it will take two teams into the World Cup European play-offs.
The two best Nation League group winners who don’t either qualify directly for the World Cup or play-offs will be entered into the 12-team playoff tournament, where three teams will progress to Qatar 2022.
For the likes of Scotland, who often struggle to make it into the top two in traditional World Cup qualification, the Nations League will take on extra importance this time out – they’re 3/4 to beat Israel on Friday. If they can top their Nations League group and the teams above them all qualify for the World Cup, it would provide them with an extra opportunity to earn their place in the world’s biggest tournament.
Because the Nations League is grouped into four divisions, with promotions and relegations to decide where teams are placed, there isn’t a huge disparity in quality that we see in normal qualification tournaments.
Indeed, England will face Belgium in their group, while Germany and Spain face off in one of the weekend’s most anticipated ties. Elsewhere Portugal and France occupy the same group, while Netherlands and Italy will meet on Monday.
In the absence of the Euros this summer, it’s the closest we’ve been to top-level international action since the last Nations League.
Clues into Gareth Southgate’s plans
Gareth Southgate has previously shown himself to be something of a tactical tinkerer, using Kyle Walker on the right of a back three in the 2018 World Cup, before switching to a formation designed to get the best out of England’s attacking players, that saw success over Spain and Croatia in the 2018-19 Nations League.
Will he stick with that system or will he use the Nations League as an opportunity to switch things up again? With a number of uncapped talents in the squad, like Mason Greenwood and Jack Grealish, there’s the possibility of trying a new formation to fit, or gauging how these players adapt to the already defined roles within the team. England are 1/4 favourites to beat Iceland on Saturday.
Several of the traditionally elite European teams have struggled internationally in recent years and it will be interesting to see how they shape up here.
As mentioned above, Germany v Spain in particular gives us plenty to chew on, with both teams disappointing in the 2018 World Cup, while neither topped their group in the last Nations League tournament.
Spain’s woes at the last World Cup were understandable to a degree, given that they had a new manager installed just days before the tournament began. They now have Luis Enrique at the helm, who began his reign with a promising 2-1 Nations League win over England, before resigning in June 2019 and rejoining in November of the same year.
Germany have no such excuse, losing to South Korea and Mexico in the World Cup and failing to win any of their Nations League matches (albeit in a tough group featuring world champions France and finalists the Netherlands). With Joachim Low still in charge, how will they perform here?
Will it have an impact on the Premier League?
There are 54 games in total spread over just six days and Premier League managers will likely be furious to lose many of their stars during this vital pre-season period.
With Covid-19 already ruling out the likes of Paul Pogba, there will be concerns that an international tournament could spread the virus and further disrupt planning for the 2020/21 Premier League season.
Add that to the traditional concerns about players being injured on international duty and you understand why some sides will be reluctant for their players to give their all in a tournament that is yet to convince of its necessity.
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