NORMALLY, the first England international after a World Cup involves sifting through the wreckage. It generally features a new manager, with a new crop of players, attempting to draw a line under the failures of the previous summer. More often than not, it is a case of ‘Here we go again’.

So when Gareth Southgate takes his seat in the Wembley dug-out ahead of tomorrow night’s Nations League opener against Spain, he will be able to bask in a rare sense of stability.

Having guided his side to the World Cup semi-finals two months ago, Southgate finds himself in the unusual position of being an England boss with a successful run at a major finals on his CV. While so many of his predecessors have been under pressure from the very first minute of a new season, Southgate has bought himself some breathing space. Tomorrow, he can sit back and enjoy the late summer sun.

Or at least he could if football worked like that. Southgate was sacked within hours of presiding over a 2-0 win when he was manager of Middlesbrough, so he knows only too well that success is a fleeting feeling. One bad result, or one wrong turn, and things can quickly be turned upside down.

As he prepares for the start of the new international season, Southgate faces two major challenges. The first is to maintain the feel-good factor and sense of togetherness that characterised England’s run to the last four in Russia. The second is to continue improving on the pitch ahead of the next European Championships in 2020. In some respects, the two go hand in hand. In others, though, Southgate will have to perform a delicate balancing act as he looks to refresh his squad while simultaneously retaining public interest.

Historically, the fallow years between tournaments have been a hard sell. The nation rekindled its love affair with the England team in the summer, but club loyalties run deep and the grumbles about a two-week disruption to the Premier League programme have already begun. Does a friendly against Switzerland really justify putting back Tottenham against Liverpool for a fortnight?

UEFA have created the Nations League in an attempt to reduce the number of friendlies on the international calendar, but while the idea of pitting teams of a similar standard against each other in a competitive environment is a good one, the format of the new competition is a mess. Group games this autumn, play-offs next summer, and four teams from the various seeding groups gaining an automatic place to the next Euros. UEFA could hardly have made it more complicated if they had tried.

That said, however, England’s forthcoming matches against their group opponents, Spain and Croatia, should be more meaningful than they would have been if they had been friendlies. It is a shame the Croatia away game will be played behind closed doors, but the four matches should provide some decent tests of England’s new-found standing. Have they really improved markedly on Southgate’s watch? Or was their run in Russia more to do with a fortuitous draw?

Two autumn friendlies punctuate England’s programme – they have been scheduled to fill the gaps when Spain are playing Croatia in the Nations League – and the decision to take Tuesday’s game with Switzerland to Leicester’s King Power Stadium is well-judged. Recent history proves that taking the England team around the country is a good way to sustain interest levels across the nation, and whether Wembley is sold or not, staging games outside London should be a regular occurrence. It would certainly help Southgate sustain the notion of an England team for all.

Ultimately, of course, the way in which his team is perceived will come down to results, and while Southgate will justifiably argue that the next two years are about developing a team that can succeed at Euro 2020, he cannot lose sight of the need to win matches along the way.

A conventional Euros qualifying campaign begins in the spring – the draw takes place on December 1 – but before then, Southgate has to prove he can maintain the momentum that was generated in the summer. A string of autumn defeats would quickly burst the bubble.

With that in mind, it was unsurprising to see Southgate stick with the vast majority of the players that served him so well in the summer when he named his squad for this week’s double-header.

Jamie Vardy and Gary Cahill have called time on their international careers, while Ashley Young has been ushered in that direction after he was omitted from this week’s party despite being England’s first-choice left wing-back in Russia.

Raheem Sterling dropped out of the squad after suffering a back problem, and the injury-plagued Adam Lallana was also forced to return to his club, but tomorrow’s starting line-up will still closely resemble the side that started England’s unsuccessful semi-final against Croatia.

That is the right way to go given that Southgate’s side is still at a formative stage of its development, and the majority of his players still have fewer than 30 international caps to their name.

There was an understandable clamour for the likes of Phil Foden, Jordan Sancho or Ryan Sessegnon to be introduced to the fold, but in Luke Shaw, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold, James Tarkowski, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Marcus Rashford, Southgate is already working with plenty of players who need international game time.

They deserve a first crack of the whip, and it will be interesting to see how many sustain their development all the way to the opening game of the next Euros in two years’ time.

The sense of evolution rather than revolution will continue when it comes to Southgate’s tactics, with the England boss set to retain the five-man defensive formation that served him so well in the summer.

The personnel will shift slightly, with Gomez likely to play at centre-half in at least one of this week’s games and Shaw now competing with Danny Rose for the left wing-back berth, but with Jordan Pickford firmly established as England’s first-choice goalkeeper, there will be a strong degree of post-World Cup continuity. Again, that is a welcome rarity.