Black and White

Greetings to you and I’m back to talk my favourite subject. The UEFA Nations League has split opinion but has it been a success so far? With two rounds of matches now complete, now seems as good a time as any to dig in.

Who is winning?

You will recall that the top division of the Nations League is split into four groups of three. Only the top teams qualify for the finals next June and so far nobody has secured their spot. That’s a good thing, as it means we should have very few “dead” games in November. World Champions France look well placed to qualify from group 1, whilst Belgium are in the box seat in group 2. Portugal are ahead in group 3 whilst Spain are still favourites in group 4 despite England’s success the other night. Those 4 teams would make for a quite enjoyable 4 team tournament next summer.

What about the other groups?

When I wrote the explanation of this tournament, I made the point that it really favours the lower ranked teams. If you look at Gibraltar, for example, they have won two competitive matches on the spin after coming up against teams of a similar calibre to themselves rather than being hit for double figures by European powerhouses. Likewise Kosovo are currently top of their league, and those two examples alone are evidence that this concept works. Scotland on the other hand are doing a great job of messing up a group containing Albania and Israel, though it is still in their hands. Remember, the winners of each group are guaranteed a playoff place if they don’t make it out of their Euro 2020 qualifying group, so the likes of Finland, Georgia and Macedonia are looking like the main benefactors at the moment.

Is there any other effect on Euro 2020?

Actually, yes. The Nations League rankings determine the qualification pots for Euro 2020 qualifying. So if there are any nations who thought they’d just sack these games off, they will find themselves in a tougher qualification group. Germany, for example, are going through a bit of a crisis and sit bottom of Group 1 and will struggle to finish in the top 10 overall. Basically, UEFA take every team and the points they got and rank them per division. Every 10 is another pot for qualifying, so if Germany end up in pot 2 they could end up in a group with Belgium, Denmark and Greece amongst others.

Is it really better than friendlies?

I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. If you tell footballers a match matters, they’ll play as such. There’s another risk and reward to make it worthwhile – the lesser ranked nations need to take their opportunity to boost their chances of qualifying but also their coefficient whilst the nations at the top end are able to test themselves against quality opposition. Because there are three teams to a group there’s still scope to play friendlies which means the various FA’s can’t get too upset about losing a chance of “glamour friendly” revenues. Anybody who watched Spain vs England on Monday night can see that both teams absolutely went for it and both managers will have learned so much more from that match than any friendly.

What’s the criticism about then?

Fundamentally some people don’t think there’s any need to add to an already busy calendar. If this had been a “normal” qualification campaign the games would have started in September anyway so these extra games are unnecessary. These people aren’t seeing the bigger picture in my opinion. As much as we’d all love to have less International breaks, it isn’t going to happen so under the old method you would have a mix of qualifiers and friendlies. You’d also have the top 3 qualifying from a group which is really rewarding mediocrity and unless you are Holland, meant most of the usual teams qualified. It might be bit convoluted but from the Nations League matches I have seen, they have mostly been far better than any friendly – I make an exception for Croatia/England where it was very apparent we need fans in a stadium!

Hopefully all of your Nations League needs have been satisfied and we can put it behind us until November. Until then, please join me in welcoming back club football. Never leave us.