Plans were rolled out this week for the UEFA Nations League — a new international league structure featuring promotion and relegation for European nations, and while it may sound like a political conglomerate, it’s going to be a very real part of the soccer calendar come 2018.
Here’s a look at the basic format the tournament will take, courtesy of Toby Moses of The Guardian:
• There will be four divisions, each containing 12-14 teams based on Uefa’s coefficients. England and other top European national teams will be in Division A
• Each division will have four mini-leagues, so England would play three or four other Division A teams on a home-and-away basis between September and November 2018
• The winners of each mini-league go into their division’s semi-finals and then final at a neutral venue in June 2019. Each division winner will qualify for Euro 2020, meaning one of the smaller nations in Division D will be guaranteed a place at the Euros
• The remaining 20 qualification places for Euro 2020 will be decided via the usual qualifying groups in matches played from 2019, possibly going on as late as March 2020
• Four of Europe’s 13 qualifying places for the 2022 World Cup may also be decided via the top two divisions of the Nations League
Naturally the plans have stirred plenty of discussion amongst all involved in the soccer stratosphere. Here’s a look at some of the positive and negative implications that the UEFA Nations League will have when it finally gets going in four years time.
1. Less International Friendlies
A big “hooray” there, right? The main plus point that’s being cited on the back of this decision is that the Nations League will do plenty to diminish the number of meaningless international friendlies that puncture the domestic calendar.
Instead of England versus “nation x” in a moribund clash at a half full Wembley, we’ll be treated to a match—the Three Lions against France, for example—with something that will surely yield a much more watchable, entertaining product. One that supporters and spectators alike will be much more willing to buy into.
The cost of these matches may come at an increased premium for those wishing to attend—although UEFA have claimed that generating more revenue is not a driving factor behind the set-up—but in this instance, you suspect fans will be happy fork out that little bit more to see 90 minutes of action that can give rise to various, competitive connotations.
2. Competitive Matches
The format of the competition will give managers the chance the run the rule over their squad in what’ll be a sustained, competitive environment. And while that is of course the case when it comes to the qualifiers for a major competition, the promotion-relegation and subsequent playoff format should better resemble a tournament scenario.
For teams not so developed in their soccer standings, the League will also yield a set of balanced matches that can allow them to continue their progress appropriately, instead of getting hammered out of sight, match after match.
3. Opportunities For Middle-Ranking Nations
The recent expansion of the European Championships have afforded less illustrious footballing nations the chance to qualify for the tournament, and up to now, middle and smaller-ranking countries have responded in the qualifying process by conjuring up a host of shock results; refreshingly, we could see a host of teams making a long awaited appearances at a major tournament in 2016.
The Nations League will give even further incentive to countries of that calibre. If they don’t qualify for the tournament proper via the traditional process, the playoff system dictates that one of the bottom 16 ranked teams will have a spot in the European Championships.
4. Streamlined Qualification Process
Qualifying for Euro 2020 has been made a much simpler and streamlined process. The introduction of the Nations League will see the top two sides from each of the ten qualifying groups take their place at the finals, with the remaining four spots being determined by the playoff winners from the Nations League.
1. Initial Confusion
“Overcome with excitement at the UEFA League of Nations competition”, tweeted former England international Gary Lineker upon its announcement. “Just wish I understood it!”
Indeed, the tournament schedule and subsequent permutations is not something that is initially easy to understand. UEFA have admitted themselves that the exact format is yet to be completely finalized, and while the steps taken in respect of the Nations League do seem positive on the face of things, demons could be revealed as myriad details are revealed.
2. More Pressure On Managers
It’s tough enough being a manager on the international stage as it is, but the introduction of even more competitive games will make the landscape and even more cutthroat one. As such, the consequences of these extra meaningful games could be detrimental to a host of different countries and their players.
Young talents, for example, are less likely to get a chance to make a mark on the international stage with something set to be riding on almost every single game. A lot of managers will be less willing to take calculated risks in their deployment of young players and as such, long-term plans could be cast aside in favour of a more immediate focus.
3. Demands On Players
For domestic managers, the announcement of the Nations League will have surely been met with a collective groan. Already there are a host of bosses from across Europe that are somewhat reluctant when it comes to allowing their players to set off on international duty, but with competitive games comes fatigue and with fatigue, injuries.
UEFA claim that the new format will reduce physical demands on players because it ties in with the agreed international match calendar and because the divisional format should see the players involved in less travelling. With the double-header match format, clubs could also get their players back earlier than they usually would, too.
But with more riding on the games, players will instinctively try that little bit harder, run a little bit further and go in for the odd tackle that, in a friendly, they probably would have shirked. Expect this League to conjure even more tedious “club versus country” palavers.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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