Neil Humphreys: Why Nations League matters for England
Manager Southgate must prove that their World Cup showing was no fluke
The beard fools no one. Gareth Southgate still has the look of a man who dreamt of being a rock star, but ended up being a chartered accountant instead.
Life is a series of compromises and England's semi-final against Holland tomorrow morning (Singapore time) feels like another. From the rock n' roll of a World Cup to the duller Nations League, Southgate is still in search of the kind of respect and adoration reserved for foreign rivals.
When Liverpool won the Champions League last weekend, manager Juergen Klopp got drunk with his players and sang silly songs on an open-top bus.
Should England win the Nations League, Southgate might loosen his tie a little.
Perhaps the stuffy stereotype is unfair. Perhaps Southgate is a chest-thumping, rabble-rouser behind closed doors, but there's still a sense of an international manager trying to prove himself.
The Nations League might be a series of international friendlies wrapped in a bizarre trophy, but England haven't won anything since 1966, four years before Southgate was born.
And the 48-year-old labours in the shadow of his own cliches: the risk-averse coach, the cautious one, the placid one, the unsuccessful one.
England reached the semi-finals of Russia 2018, but were easily defeated once they faced half-decent opposition (Croatia and Belgium).
But the final four represented the Three Lions' best World Cup moment since Italia '90 and they carried that momentum through the group stages of the Nations League, beating Croatia and winning in Spain to reach the semi-finals.
An equally emphatic start to their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign saw them score five goals in each of their first two games.
But Southgate hasn't entirely convinced. There are the faintest of echoes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, in the sense that a young, relatively inexperienced coach returned to an old dressing room to restore confidence.
Benign fixtures and positive media support from former colleagues, along with a promise to focus on youth development, contributed to an extended honeymoon period that inflated expectations and sidestepped any possible concerns (i.e. a lack of experience).
Of course, Southgate has taken England much further than Solskjaer's United, relatively speaking, but he has also benefited from a certain coaching serendipity.
He arrived in the dressing room at the same time as a number of burgeoning talents.
Harry Kane was already around and won the Golden Boot in Russia, but Raheem Sterling has transformed himself from a precocious winger into a Ballon d'Or contender.
Southgate also has one of the finest fullbacks in Europe. Trent Alexander-Arnold is a master of disguise, playing like a 30-something veteran while looking like he's nearly ready to start shaving.
He's played in two Champions League finals before his 21st birthday and epitomises the prodigious talent that fell into Southgate's lap - thanks to foreigners.
Alexander-Arnold, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Declan Rice and Ben Chilwell are emerging talents, all 22 or under, who have flourished under foreign managers.
In simple coaching terms, Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Klopp arguably contributed as much as anyone sitting in England's dugout towards the Three Lions' run to the World Cup semi-finals.
Although Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur's players are expected to skip the Holland game, following their Champions League exertions, Southgate can still draw from a larger pool of talent than his predecessors.
It's ironic that Southgate has occasionally lamented the lack of English representation in the English Premier League, on both sides of the white line, even though the sterling work of foreign coaches has enhanced his own reputation.
Seven of his squad played in the Champions League final, for either Klopp or Pochettino.
These coaching revolutionaries are indirectly giving a career leg-up to a manager who can give the impression that a radical match-day decision would involve dropping the suit jacket in favour of a waistcoat.
So the world might not need the Nations League, but Southgate certainly does.
He has retained 15 players from his World Cup squad and newcomers Sancho, Rice and Chilwell are all expected to feature. He has youth and experience, and a nucleus to take all the way to the sweltering farce of Qatar 2022.
This was the season when English teams asserted their dominance on the international stage. It's time for England's manager to do the same.