This week sees the return of the inaugural European Nations League, created by UEFA to add meaning to previously processional friendlies and give lesser nations opportunities to play against teams of a similar quality. Whilst fans and pundits applauded the increased intensity and competitive nature of the first round of games the competition has not been universally liked, with England World Cup hero Harry Maguire describing the format as “quite confusing” and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp branding the competition “senseless”.
The Nations League will take place biennially and sees the 55 UEFA members split into 4 leagues, A-D, based on their UEFA coefficient. These leagues are then subdivided into 4 pools which each contain 3 or 4 teams of roughly equal quality (in theory producing competitive, entertaining games), who play each other home and away. The winners of each pool will be promoted to the League above, with the losers of each pool relegated to the League below. The winners of each pool in League A will proceed to the Nations League finals, taking place in June 2019, where 2 semi-finals and a final will decide the Nations League champions. Clear? Well it’s about to get even more confusing.[pullquote] The Nations League should be regarded as a promising experiment.[/pullquote]
The qualification process for the 2020 Euros has been simplified with 20 of the 24 spots allocated to the top 2 teams in each of 10 qualification groups. The final 4 available spots will be won by 4 of the 16 pool winners in the Nations League, with each individual League producing a qualifier through play offs between the 4 pool winners. In the likely scenario that one or more of the pool winners have already gained qualification to the Euros through the conventional qualification process their spot in the play offs will be given to the next highest ranked team according to the UEFA coefficient who have neither qualified for the Euros nor won their pool.
Whilst the format has understandably been regarded as convoluted and unnecessarily confusing, the league has so far seemed to succeed in its two main aims. Unlike friendlies most of the opening fixtures of the competition saw strong, first choice teams competing in high intensity, competitive fixtures. Teams are generally playing to win, encouraged by the carrot of European Championship qualification, producing entertaining games that have largely excited fans more than the usual turgid friendlies. The tournament has also seen teams playing against competitors of a similar quality, which can only be good for their development. Perennial whipping boys Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands have all recorded wins whilst England have faced the unusually tough tests of games against Spain and Croatia.
Despite Maguire’s confusion (which many share) and Klopp’s disgust (the usual response of Premier League managers to internationals) the Nations League should be regarded as a promising experiment. Whilst some issues need to be ironed out and some light shed on the more confusing aspects of the format, it provides solutions to fan’s previously unresolved complaints of boring games between mismatched opponents.