England host Spain in their opening match of the newly established UEFA Nations League tournament at Wembley on Saturday (19:45 BST, live on Sky Sports).
The competition splits UEFA’s 55 member nations into four leagues, each then comprised of four groups. The winners of each group will progress to the semi-finals and final of each league, with the triumphant team from League A crowned UEFA Nations League champion.
It is an attempt, in UEFA’s words, to rid the international calendar of “meaningless” friendlies, but it would seem merely to add further bloat and confusion. The fact that none of England’s matches will be broadcast on terrestrial television, making it the first “major” international tournament of which that can be said, is another point against it.
England and Spain are both part of League A and have been drawn in a three-team group with Croatia, the side who defeated England in the semi-final of the World Cup. As noted, the group winner will progress to the championship playoff next summer, while the team that finishes bottom of the group will be relegated to League B for the 2020-21 edition.
While the tournament will offer an additional four places at Euro 2020 to the teams who fail to qualify through the standard qualification process, which begins next March, that is unlikely to come into consideration for most of the sides in League A. It will therefore be interesting to see just how seriously the top international teams take the competition.
England’s primary aim ahead of Euro 2020 will be to build on the positives from their run to the last four of the World Cup and seek to add further elements to their game that will allow them to perform in a more rounded and cohesive manner in that tournament. Gareth Southgate’s side were excellent from set-piece situations in Russia and put together some spells of good football in open play, but there is still a lot to be worked on and improved.
Southgate has said in the build-up to Saturday’s match that his side need to show more composure in possession when put under pressure. He is, though, content that the three-man defensive setup England utilised at the World Cup is the right formation to build from. The squad he has selected for the game against Spain and next Tuesday’s friendly against Switzerland shows that he is also happy with the large majority of his playing staff.
Before Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling pulled out injured, the 23-man group featured 18 of the players behind England’s strong run in the World Cup.
That contrasts with the way that new Spain head coach Luis Enrique has approached his first two matches in charge of La Roja. His 24-man selection to face England and Croatia in a pair of Nations League encounters includes 11 players who were not part of the squad that fell to a round-of-16 exit to hosts Russia in the summer.
The former Barcelona coach has the job of steadying the ship and seeking a way forward after a World Cup campaign that was derailed on the eve of the tournament by the sacking of Julen Lopetegui, who had negotiated a post-tournament move to Real Madrid without informing his superiors. Interim coach Fernando Hierro never fully convinced in what was somewhat of a waste of the last major tournament for Andres Iniesta and David Silva.
The feeling is that Lopetegui was on more or less the right path in trying to add a bit more verticality to Spain’s traditional short-passing game. Enrique will be tasked with continuing and evolving that style of play – one that he successfully fostered at Barcelona – while carving out increasingly important roles for young talents such as Marco Asensio.
Spain come into this match in a less stable position than England, but there can be no doubt as to the quality they possess. There will also be a few players keen to make a case to their new coach for continued inclusion. The last two matches between these sides on English soil ended in a draw and an England victory, but Spain did win out when they met in Manchester back in 2007 and can be fancied to again emerge victorious on Saturday.
Our Preview’s England vs. Spain Betting Tips Verdict
- Bet on Spain to win @ 7/4 with BoyleSports.