UEFA came up with the Nations League scheme a few years ago to try to inject some “meaning” into international friendlies — instead of just, say, not playing them — and judging by the emphasis placed on England’s match against the Netherlands last night, including from the rowdy and raucous (to be kind) traveling “support” (why on Earth were they booing Van Dijk?), they’ve done a decent job of it.
But at the end of the day, it was still just a friendly. There were no Euro 2020 repercussions, unlike in the Nations League “group stages” where the group winners get a playoff spot. The Nations League “semifinals”, “finals”, and even a most hilarious “third-place match” are just friendlies to be played instead of a round of actual Euro 2020 qualifying. But the people cared, and much emotion was expended over nothing.
Of course, for the players, it’s almost always a meaningful honor to represent their countries, if for nothing else then as recognition that they are ahead of their peers in certain aspects. Everybody wants to be picked first in gym class.
One of the players picked first this time around was Chelsea’s Ross Barkley, who started alongside a distinctly unimpressive-sounding duo of Declan Rice and Fabian Delph as Gareth Southgate decided to rest players who were involved in the Champions League final last weekend. That was the correct decision, but it again underlined the ultimately non-competitive nature of the occasion.
Barkley turned out to be one of England’s best players, certainly for large parts of the game, just by virtue of avoiding game-changing errors such as Matthijs De Ligt giving away a penalty after losing the ball or John Stones giving away a goal after losing the ball. The former gave England the first-half lead (Rashford converting from the spot) the latter gave the Dutch the lead in extra-time (Kyle Walker credited with the own goal) after De Ligt had leveled in the second-half.
Before then, Barkley produced this lovely pass for Jesse Lingard, who scored what looked like a winner but was ruled out for offside (barely?) on replay.
Barkley then joined the error-party with a poor backpass with five minutes left in extra-time, which Quincy Promes bundled over the line to set the final scoreline at 3-1. Having run his legs off for 115 minutes, Barkley’s first-time pass attempt back to Pickford, from a rather ill-advised pass from Stones, went astray, thus ending England’s “hopes” of playing yet another meaningless friendly but this time for a trophy(?). Instead, England will play Switzerland, who lost to a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick the day before, in the third-place friendly on Sunday. Fun fun fun!