WTF Is The UEFA Nations League?

With World Cup qualifiers drawing to a conclusion this week UEFA has unveiled the final standings for the Nations League. The new system is set to overhaul European fixtures, bringing about an end to dead rubber games. The concept is very exciting but one question remains; what exactly is it?

The Set-Up

The qualifying process for Euro 2020 will still stick to the traditional format. The UEFA Nations League will replace international friendlies that have little to no bearing on teams. There will be places at Euro 2020 up for grabs, though, making these semi-competitive fixtures.

The aim is to prevent teams from fielding second-string players. Likewise, it will prevent clubs or players from prioritising domestic football and becoming ‘injured’ before meaningless fixtures. With dwindling attendance records for friendlies, UEFA hopes the new format will inject some much-needed excitement back into the games.

The promise of an additional Euros will make every fixture worthwhile, with the best team being able to forgo qualification altogether. Others will put themselves in a preferential position, at least providing a safety net for disappointing qualifying – we’re looking at you Netherlands.

How Will it Work?

European nations have been split into four leagues depending on their current coefficient. Divisions will be listed alphabetically A,B,C,D with the best teams playing in League A. There will be four promotion spots available with each full calendar rotation and the four underperformers in each league will be relegated.

On January 24th UEFA will hold another draw splitting each league into four smaller sections. England and the rest of Europe’s elite will be split into groups of three; some lower leagues will feature groups of four. Teams will play everyone in their group home and away to determine the final league standings.

The top team in each group will enter a league play-off for four extra Euro 2020 spots after qualifying. The four winners of League A will also enter a play-off before qualifying to determine a host country. Assuming most of League A will qualify through the traditional format the next highest placed team will take their place in the later playoffs.

In terms of qualification, teams in League A won’t benefit much aside from the host position to be won. Many teams in League C or D though will have the opportunity to qualify for their first ever tournament by beating teams of similar rankings.

What Does it Mean for England?

England has been placed in League A with the rest of Europe’s elite so performances will have to be improved. The possibility of a group of death is a near certainty, Southgate’s boys will surely be one of the favourites for relegation in the first year. The system means England could share a group with Germany and Belgium or Croatia and Iceland. The Three Lions will hope for a kind draw but are almost certain to draw at least one European powerhouse.

This can only be a positive thing for an England team that has been well off the pace for six years now. Semi-competitive fixtures against these powerhouses will result in England raising their game if they want to avoid the drop – no-one wants an entire year of fixtures against Bosnia or Denmark. It would definitely be in the countries best interest to remain in League A, so the FA and Southgate are going to have to step up.

Will it Work?

It’s kind of a half measure from UEFA in the end, it’s a revamped format not an overhaul of fixtures. The smaller groups will mean teams will only see a maximum of four or six UEFA Nations League fixtures. It’s a cautious approach to the inaugural campaign meaning the whole concept can be sounded out. Only time can be the true test of its success but it’s clearly something UEFA have been working towards for a long time.

The idea is very exciting and is sure to add the extra excitement and competitive edge UEFA is looking for. Teams like Finland will be chomping at the bit to win their respective groups and be in with a chance at Euro 2020. It is further expanding the competition beyond the seeded teams who are expected to qualify each tournament. The added diversity of teams at the tournament was a huge success at Euro 2016 and this system will push beyond that.

It would be great to see the system expanded further, adding more exciting international fixtures to the calendar. Replacing all dead rubber friendlies and qualifiers with more league action in a six-team format. Seeded teams would want more assurances, but maybe it’s time for an overhaul of what is dead fortnight for fans.