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International break roundup: the big stories you missed when you weren't paying attention
Big European names stumble while the South American action gets going again
International break! Is there any phrase more thrilling to the human soul?
Ok, I know I’m the super weird one for actually enjoying international football. I suspect plenty of you were pretty bored over the two-week dry spell without the club game. So if you weren’t paying attention, here are all the key stories and narratives you missed over what was a pretty eventful international break overall.
Germany tell Flick to get f*cked
Once again, Germany make a change many wanted them to make some time earlier.
In all fairness to Hansi Flick, it’s not like Germany were flying under Jogi Löw. The 2014 world champions held things together long enough to reach the semi-finals of Euro 2016, which was a disappointment at the time but looks like a miracle now. After that, Löw took the team out in the group stages in 2018 before reaching the dizzying heights of the round of 16 in Euro 2020 (which was actually in 2021). Flick took over afterwards and delivered more of the same. Germany’s issues in the last three tournaments have been broadly the same: some nice football, not enough control and authority in midfield, too lax in both boxes. The Euros had the added wrinkle of a divisive 3-4-3 shape, but the macro story didn’t change. Swapping out the manager for his former assistant didn’t fix it. Flick was clear in December that he thought structural issues were at play, explaining that:
“We need to get better at player development. We've been crying out for number nines and strong full-backs for years. Defending has distinguished German football for years. We need to get back to the basics.
Spain is very good in the defence and they focus on training of young players. I think for the future and the next 10 years it will be very important to focus on the new generation of footballers. Jamal Musiala is fantastic, his skill in the tackles, the one on ones, he is outstanding and the next couple of years we do have talents in our team, we are headed in the right direction – but we have to see, we have to focus on the training. Jamal has been trained in England, not Germany.”
The DFB (German FA) had to either buy that argument and commit to it, or disagree with it and sack Flick. They decided to go with Flick, then realised they made the wrong call after six friendlies.
I don’t think Germany should be as bad as they have been. They’ve been a little unfortunate with xG in the last few tournaments. But this definitely doesn’t feel like a generation capable of winning a major tournament. I’m always a little sceptical of how much an international manager can really change things with the same players and so little time to train. In that light, the null hypothesis says Germany’s core problems will be pretty similar under the next boss.
Spain finally click
Speaking of a country that’s played some disappointing stuff after winning big…
The Euros next summer will mark a decade since Spain’s horrendous 2014 World Cup group stage exit that brought the golden age to a screaming halt. Five major tournaments, under three different managers, using (by my count) 55 different players, producing the same issues. Luis Enrique, to his credit, did move things forward somewhat in the last Euros, but his team then regressed to the same old problems in Qatar: lots of control, lots of sideways passing, very little penetration against low blocks. At that point, you really do have to concede it’s a structural issue running down to youth coaching. Spanish possession football might not be teaching kids a varied enough skillset to produce the range of players they need to beat all opponents.
Current manager Luis de la Fuente is very much a company man from the RFEF (Spanish FA), which isn’t exactly something you want to say about someone in light of recent events. After losing 2-0 to Scotland in March, Spain needed to get this qualification campaign back under control and they certainly did that, beating Georgia and Cyprus 7-1 and 6-0. When it all just works, Spain are still a sight to behold. Both Georgia and Cyprus did a poor job constricting the space and Spain just enjoyed themselves. There will certainly be harder tests than this, and we haven’t seen anything to suggest De la Fuente will fix Spain’s structural issues, but still, they showed they can still turn up and annihilate teams on their day.
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England disappoint against Ukraine, then beat Scotland
It took a while but, after reflecting on it, I can just about see what Gareth Southgate was trying to do in the flat and uninspired 1-1 draw with Ukraine, even as we can see why it didn’t work at all.
Southgate has stuck with the 4-3-3 system we saw during the World Cup last November. Right now, I’d say there are eight players who started in Qatar and will almost certainly start at the Euros next summer if fit: Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Luke Shaw, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane. We’ll come back to a certain centre back a little bit later. Otherwise, there are two important spots he’s trying to figure out: the right-sided central midfielder slightly more reserved than Bellingham on the left, and the left-sided forward.
In the June international break, Southgate moved Trent Alexander-Arnold into midfield. Bellingham was injured so we couldn’t see how they would interact, but the Liverpool player was outstanding with his ability to pick out Saka in particular from deep. The natural concern, though, is if he’s a little too risky on the ball against better teams, and hurts England’s ability to control games. Southgate’s proposed other solution, then, is to have James Maddison (or Jack Grealish, but he’s injured) start on the left wing but drift into midfield. Then England would be able to accommodate Alexander-Arnold better with four players in the centre of the pitch.
A new wrinkle seems to be having Bellingham rotate with Maddison. We’ve seen how well he’s done at Real Madrid in a more advanced role, so drifting out to the left could let him run into space a little more often. At least that was the theory.
The first problem was injuries. Alexander-Arnold picked up a knock in Liverpool’s last game, so he was out. Shaw and Stones have both been unavailable for a few weeks. Southgate decided to play Jordan Henderson in place of Alexander-Arnold. Should a Saudi Pro League player start a game for England? Even if you think the answer is yes, I don’t think this made sense. Ukraine were always going to sit in a low block, meaning England needed passers from deep to find players and open up the game. In Alexander-Arnold’s absence, Kalvin Phillips (hardly a fan favourite, but whatever) would’ve made far more sense. When you’re asking Henderson to pull the strings from deep, it’s not going to be great.
Shaw was at least as much of a loss. Ben Chilwell deputised and didn’t impress. It’s been the best part of three years since he played left back in a four for Chelsea and he seemed to overcorrect for his attacking instincts, not bombing on when England needed to. At the same time, Maddison and Bellingham’s rotations didn’t look natural at all. What happened was Maddison, wanting to dominate the game like a roast dinner with his family, always came inside, so Bellingham ended up marooned as the only player wide on the left. He also wanted to come inside, so England had no way of stretching Ukraine on that flank. On the right, Saka wasn’t at it for some reason, so the only real outlet at all who ever got to run into space was Kyle Walker from full back. Fair play that Walker got the goal, but with all of England’s good players, he should not be the only one who can get in that position. Everyone else was hitting the brick wall of Ukraine’s compact shape. It was so stale.
Southgate’s biggest weakness has always been tactical tweaks during a game. It was obvious by half-time that this wasn’t working. With Ukraine happy to sit deep, England didn’t need the protection of Henderson, so I thought he should’ve been taken off for Marcus Rashford. That way England could have him running into space on the left while Maddison and Bellingham both got to play inside. Rashford did come on after 65 minutes, but for Bellingham, while Maddison came off for Phil Foden, which was two steps forward and one step back. Southgate’s subs always feel pre-planned instead of responding to the flow of the game. England have been otherwise very good in these qualifiers, so the sky isn’t falling, but it was very frustrating.
Then they put on a dominant display in the friendly against Scotland. I don’t think this game was that interesting from an England perspective. They simply have better players than Scotland. It did fuel yet more Harry Maguire discourse, as he fumbled in an own goal. Yet more memes everywhere. Maguire says that the whole world making fun of his performances isn’t bothering him, but the guy’s own mother wouldn’t be speaking about this if he wasn’t shaken by the whole thing. Up until now, his Manchester United form hasn’t impacted what he’s done for England. If that’s changing, then I’m sorry, there isn’t an argument to play him.
Stones was injured, so that pretty much ensured Maguire would play. One suspects, though, that he would’ve started next to Stones against Ukraine, anyway. Marc Guéhi is clearly Southgate’s next favourite, with Lewis Dunk, Levi Colwill, Fikayo Tomori and Tyrone Mings all somewhere in the mix. I assume he’s concerned about losing aerial dominance without Maguire, but the solution has to be somewhere among these players.
Scotland get closer to the Euros
Scotland beat Cyprus 3-0 to make it five wins from five in European Championship qualifying. They’re six points clear at the top of Group A, and bookies put their implied probability of qualifying at about 94%. From a group with Spain, Erling Haaland and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. It’s all very exciting.
It is worth pointing out that, per Fotmob, their xG difference is third best in the group. But it’s still pretty solid. They outplayed Spain at home and reasonably deserved the three points there. Maybe they were a little fortunate against Georgia, but not dramatically so. They were second best for most of the match away to Norway, but turned it on in the later stages when necessary for the smash and grab. And while Cyprus are a poor team, Scotland just turning up at a poor team and smashing them home and away is not how these things traditionally go.
And I don’t think anyone can begrudge Scotland getting some good fortune now. At Euro 2020, they actually played reasonably well in all three games and were very unfortunate to get just one point. In the 2022 World Cup play-offs, they played much better against Ukraine than Wales, who actually went to Qatar, did. Scotland have had plenty of misfortune in the last few years. Things are finally going their way, and fans can look forward to visiting Germany next summer.
The big hitters turn up in South American qualifiers
The CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers are famously the most difficult and gruelling on the planet. 10 countries, no minnows, all playing each other home and away, fighting to the death for those World Cup places. FIFA’s expansion to a 48-team tournament might have defanged these qualifiers a bit. Six countries will now qualify directly rather than four (with another heading to an inter-continental play-off). It got really nervy at times for the big boys, and that might be done. Brazil and Argentina can probably relax a little bit.
The reigning world champions got off to a good start. Save for Nicolás González in place of Ángel Di María, this was the same team in the first match that we saw in the World Cup final. Argentina beat Ecuador 1-0 thanks to the individual brilliance of you know who from a free kick. That’s about how these qualifiers have gone for a long time now. Lionel Messi was then rested for the match away to Bolivia (traditionally the weakest team in CONMEBOL, but this might not happen with fewer qualifying spots). Anyone hoping to see the future of Argentina without Messi was probably disappointed, as Lionel Scaloni started 35-year-old Di María in his place. Still, it should be reassuring that La Albiceleste can whip Bolivia into shape without the main man.
Brazil are in a bit of a holding pattern right now. Tite stepped down after the World Cup, and the CBF (Brazilian FA) have already stated that Carlo Ancelotti will take over the team in time for next summer’s Copa América. Fernando Diniz is managing the team right now, but everyone knows he’ll be gone soon. As such, we saw that Neymar is capable of brilliance, and Brazil are better than Bolivia and Peru. But we already knew that. They got the results, and that’s literally all that matters right now.
Uruguay might be the most intriguing team in South America due to their new manager, Marcelo Bielsa. He’s no stranger to this process, having managed Argentina and Chile previously. He’s certainly not going to embrace the turgid negative stuff we usually see from Uruguay, so this is a complete reset. It all started well, beating Chile 3-1. Darwin Núñez was a nightmare for the Chilean defence, and really deserved a goal that didn’t come (I know, I know). Things then took a turn for the worse as they lost 2-1 away to Ecuador. It can be hard to go to Quito and get a result due to the high altitude, especially when you’re adapting to a much more intense style of football than you’re used to. Bielsa has work to do if he wants to turn Uruguay into his team. But, thanks to the increased number of qualification places, he has time to do it.
And now, back to club football, which is the bit most of you care about. I’ll see you next time.
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