Of all of the surprises to happen in Football this season, the biggest for me personally was the success of the Nations League. When it was initially announced, I wasn’t sure what the point of the competition was, and was then completely flummoxed when the format of the competition was revealed. On the second point, I still feel like there is some room for improvement, particularly in regards to how the competition fits in alongside qualification for Euro 2020, but in terms of the purpose of the competition, the stated aims seem to have been realised by what we have seen on the pitch – more ‘competitive’ international Football in every sense of the word.
When we talk about competitive international Football, the first distinction drawn is between competitive fixtures and friendlies. I started watching England during their unsuccessful qualifying campaign for World Cup 1994, and in the 25+ years since, I could probably count on one hand the number of friendlies which were memorable in terms of the overall match, as opposed to a single incident within the match. Whilst it does reduce the number of opportunities European fans have to watch the likes of Brazil and Argentina outside of a World Cup, friendlies haven’t been completely been removed from the calendar and few fans will have lamented them being scaled back for this season.
The fact that Nations League fixtures proved more compelling than friendlies was therefore not saying much, but the element of surprise has come from the fact that this new competition, with no history to draw upon and shrouded in confusion regarding the format, has arguably proved more compelling than the Euro 2020 qualifiers. Qualification from the UEFA confederation for either the World Cup or European Championships has typically been a fairly tedious affair, with a handful of crucial fixtures in each group sprinkled in amongst plenty of one sided contests.
With the Nations League pitting teams against other teams of a similar ranking, it was hoped that the number of closely contested matches would increase, and that has been the case based on what we have seen so far this season. Across 138 Nations League games, including draws (i.e. a ‘margin of victory’ of zero), the average margin of victory was 1.44 goals. Across 50 Euro 2020 qualifiers, that figure rises to 1.84. Admittedly there have only been two rounds of fixtures in Euro 2020 so far, so the pool of data is still relatively small, though the number of one sided contests (defined here as games with a margin of victory of 4 or more goals) makes for interesting reading. The Nations League provided 11 one sided games, whilst the Euro 2020 qualifiers have already provided 8. That is an average of a one sided game every 6.25 games, almost exactly twice as often as they occured during the Nations League.
It will be interesting to see the impact the Nations League has on qualifying competitions within the UEFA confederation over the long term. Could it lead to a reformatting of the qualification process, or perhaps even form the sole basis for qualification itself? Or will the opportunity for all international teams to play truly competitive fixtures on a more regular basis generate more competitive qualifying competitions, even if the format is not adjusted?
The Nations League provided opportunities for teams normally considered international ‘minnows’ to pick up the type of positive results they have rarely experienced in competitive internationals. Andorra for example picked up 4 draws across their 6 games, whilst Gibraltar recorded 2 wins. Kosovo were even more impressive, winning 4 and drawing 2 of their 6 fixtures. Could teams build on this momentum and form during qualifying?
Luxembourg provide cause for optimism on this front. Prior to this season, they had managed just 12 wins from 245 games played across World Cup and European Championship qualification rounds, never coming remotely close to actually qualifying for either. Yet in a Nations League group also featuring Belarus, Moldova and San Marino, they were able to record 3 wins and 1 draw from that 6 matches. They then began their Euro 2020 campaign with a victory over Lithuania, and though they subsequently lost against Ukraine, they only lost by a single goal. Though the size of their population is prohibitive, Iceland have qualified for consecutive major tournaments despite having an even smaller population, so could the Nations League help the likes of Luxembourg follow suit?