International breaks should be here to stay

Lucy Tansley thinks there are several pros to the newly formed UEFA Nations League

England men's football team at the World Cup

Taking a weekend off from the Premier League to make time for international football has long been a source of annoyance among football fans. Typically boring and unmotivated matches, more often than not ending in a loss or goalless draw where England are concerned, are not quite up to the standard of excitement we come to expect from the usual weekend league matches. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp recently called the newly formed UEFA Nations League “the most senseless competition in the world” for the unnecessary added strain it puts on players.

Although it is true that international matches are disruptive to players’ routines, with Brazilian internationals recently flying to the US for a mere five days in the break to play two friendlies, the matches are not without their positives. After a post-World Cup lull for English supporters, excitement around the national team has been renewed by the surprising brilliance they showed in their Nations League win against Spain the weekend before last, showing that the importance of international fixtures should not, in my opinion, be written off.

Although Klopp’s criticism of the Nations League may have been harsh, he did make a valid point concerning the added risk involved in overworking players. Dele Alli suffered a hamstring injury during England’s 2-1 loss to Spain in September, which put him out of action for Spurs’ next clashes against Liverpool and Inter Milan, leading some to question whether the international result was worth this sacrifice.

The disruption caused by the international break to clubs and managers is understandably frustrating, as teams are unable to settle into a string of League matches before some of their key players are shipped off around the world. You only need to look at the contrast in relationship between Rashford and Southgate, and with Mourinho, and observe the difference in play between his recent club and country performances, to see the impact having alternating managers can have. Mourinho came out of the September international break having to defend his lack of use of Rashford, after the striker scored twice in two England matches, and this lack of continuity in managerial style seems undermining for everyone involved.

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Nevertheless, despite all these factors, there seems to be something important about retaining the regular international fixtures. The England team were praised over the summer for the cohesion and chemistry the players seemed to have, their relationships off the pitch apparently positively affecting their performance on it. With too much of a gap between international fixtures, national teams would risk losing their connectedness and relationship as a team, a factor we would be stupid to overlook. Replacing the majority of international friendlies with Nations League matches was greeted by some criticism, but seems to have had an overall positive impact.

For the lower teams, the league ranking system provides some much-needed motivation at an international level, as can be clearly seen by Gibraltar’s exultant celebrations after their first ever competitive international win, over Armenia, in the last break. Possibly the problem with international fixtures in the past has been the lack of excitement in friendly matches; England’s win against Switzerland three days after their loss to Spain in September did not come as much consolation as the match didn’t count for anything.

Having a competitive format provides the impetus that drove England to redress this loss the weekend before last. If Spain had beaten them, England would have been out of the Nations League; as it stands they now still have a chance to progress. It is this sort of incentive that has re-injected a spurt of energy to the international fixtures, and which will keep the momentum up for when the qualifying matches for the Euros come around in March.

Could the international format be improved? Probably. Should it be scrapped altogether? Undoubtedly not. Whatever their faults, an England match gives an opportunity to put everyone’s club differences aside and unite under one aim. Whether England progress in the Nations League or not, the matches will have been largely exciting, and a good addition to the football calendar.

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As for complaints about an overcrowded match schedule, tournaments like the Carabao Cup should perhaps be the first contender for re-evaluation in that regard; international breaks give a different perspective of play, remind us of why we love events like the World Cup, and we should ultimately try to savour them as much as possible.

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