England take Bronze in UEFA Nations League: A review of the campaign

England take Bronze in UEFA Nations League: A review of the campaign

10 June 2019 0 By Chris Stonadge

Football’s coming home, Southgate you’re the one, Vindaloo. The support in Guimaraes for Southgate’s men was so rowdy that it signalled the closing of schools and shutting of doors in worry of citizens’ safety.

With English international football being in the best place it has been this century, the response was naturally positive to the UEFA Nations League campaign. In a group involving the latest World Cup runners-up and the 2010 World Cup champions, no one would have expected this inexperienced England side to prosper as much as they have done.

The first match came against Spain, headed by the former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, and spurning the fiery red and yellow which has seen so much success this century.

England did take an early lead, after an incisive pass from Luke Shaw set up teammate Marcus Rashford in the 11th minute. Saul Niguez replied just two minutes later though.

Rodrigo Moreno of Valencia fired home the eventual winner just 19 minutes after this and took advantage of poor marking and sloppiness at a free-kick, a fault which Southgate aimed to rectify throughout the campaign and did so.

Southgate: “We are under no illusions. We are still at the early stages of what we want to do. This was a tough test in terms of pressing and a team who are so good in possession.

“We have to keep reviewing and looking at what we do but we want to stick to the plan and get better at what we do.”

Next for the Three Lions was probably one of the most dull yet surreal experiences for those who took to the field in Croatia. A stadium desolate of supporters (barring 28 very committed England fans) in Rijeka. Being behind closed doors there was no real momentum gathered by either side, it petered out into a rather depressing goalless stalemate.

RIJEKA, CROATIA – OCTOBER 12: Harry Kane of England heads a chance goalwards during the UEFA Nations League A Group Four match between Croatia and England at Stadion HNK Rijeka on October 12, 2018 in Rijeka, Croatia. The match is due to be played behind closed doors. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Eric Dier and Harry Kane both hit the woodwork, the echoes of the shouting commands and applause from the bench were the only stamp on a night which left a lot to be desired.

With a campaign in deformation and the good work from the 2018 World Cup seemingly undone, Gareth Southgate had to hope for two wins, away in Spain and against Croatia at Wembley, to secure passage through to the knockout rounds. They would need at least four points to avoid relegation to the second tier of the inaugural tournament.

Spain were in buoyant mood. Luis Enrique, set to be bringing back the glory days of the late noughties and early tens, had only Southgate’s England to beat to oversee qualification to the last four of the UEFA Nations League.

But the side in brick red and yellow, after comfortably winning at Wembley, didn’t see the Sterling factor.

Within the opening half an hour England shook Seville. Sterling, running through from a delicious and deluxe buffet ball from Rashford, who himself bagged another just 13 minutes later. Sterling completed England’s scoring seven minutes before the interval with another sumptuous finish.

SEVILLE, SPAIN – OCTOBER 15: Raheem Sterling of England celebrates as he scores his team’s first goal during the UEFA Nations League A Group Four match between Spain and England at Estadio Benito Villamarin on October 15, 2018 in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Although Spain saw late replies from Paco Alcacer and Sergio Ramos, Southgate’s men held on to what was a statement victory. A first home defeat in competition for Spain in 15 years, Sterling’s first international goals in over 1800 minutes and England’s first win in Spain since 1987.

Thus England needed a win. A win which would have to come against nemeses from just four months previous. Croatia.

England needed two goals to top the group and reach the semi-final and final stages in Portugal, and at least avenge a little on Croatia for that World Cup disappointment.

57 minutes in though, and all was not well within Wembley stadium. Andrej Kramaric, only known in this country for a failed spell with Leicester, had twisted and turned to fire past Pickford, sending the chequered crowd into raptures.

With twelve to go it was Jesse Lingard, from less than a yard out, who instigated the comeback. Although not consistent at club level, the previously labelled ‘Messi’ always seems to turn up on the big occasion in England white.

And speaking of the big occasion, it’s hard to look past England’s skipper. Harry Kane. Penalty area. The only word you can think of is goal.

And from a Ben Chilwell cross, that is exactly what followed. A whipped ball from the left side, Kane slid in like a stud into DMs to take all three points and a place in Portugal.

“It’s right up there. To see the fans like they were and the belief they showed. It’s all about having match-winners in the squad.

“It’s one of England’s best years. We could win a trophy.

“To carry the momentum into the new year… we’ve had a fantastic year, but not rested on our laurels.”

Harry Kane, BBC Radio 5 Live, when asked how this goal ranked in his career.

Optimism certainly was the feeling heading into Portugal at the beginning of June. With a chunk of the squad away in Madrid, Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez obviously were worse for wear from the parade last Sunday as they were not selected.

It was clear the rustiness was prominent throughout the first half of the Semi-Final, with it being the knife in the back of Ajax wonderkid Matthijs de Ligt.

England’s forward Harry Kane (L) challenges Netherlands’ defender Matthijs De Ligt during the UEFA Nations League semi-final football match between The Netherlands and England at the Afonso Henriques Stadium in Guimaraes on June 6, 2019. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP) (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)

A slip and Rashford was in, darting past the blonde-haired central defender and causing rash challenge. A penalty was awarded, and Rashford slotted with calmness beyond his years. England led by a goal to nil, and realistically, they didn’t deserve it.

De Ligt would atone for his errors in the second half though, heading in after poor marking at a corner 17 minutes from time.

With just moments remaining, Jesse Lingard once again was the centre of attention on the big stage. Yet this was in vain. The dreaded video assistant referee once again came to England’s demise.

Lingard’s finish was chalked off by a few millimetres and eventually, the minute distance between goal and no goal made no difference in extra time. It isn’t worth blaming that. The shoddy defending is what’s worth blaming.

Passing out from the back is famed from the days of Cruyff and total football. Not being too harsh on these players, but John Stones and Ross Barkley are not Cruyff and Beckenbauer. There’s knowing your crowd, and Southgate does need to take into account the fact that these players aren’t world beaters.

Walker’s own goal and Quincy Promes secured the fate of England who crashed out very anticlimactically. The UEFA Nations League was not coming home

England then managed to scrape a third placed finish with a penalty victory over Switzerland, but the less said about it the better. The only notable moment was the penalty antics of Jordan Pickford who did his best Rogerio Ceni impression by both scoring and saving a spot kick.

It has begun some good preparation for EURO 2020. Will football really be coming home next summer?