Fifteen years at the highest level gives a national team coach plenty of sporting capital. Enough, for example, to survive both a humiliating first-round exit at a World Cup and relegation from the inaugural Nations League. It also gave Joachim Low licence to make bold moves and he certainly did that when Germany traveled to take on the Dutch in the pick of the weekend’s Euro 2020 qualifiers.
Having already dropped Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller, Low drew up a 3-4-1-2 system featuring two wingers (Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry) masquerading as forwards, with the heft provided by Leon Goretzka‘s forward runs from No.10 position and the creativity coming from Josh Kimmich and Toni Kroos in midfield. It’s the sort of set-up that looks reasonable in theory but requires field testing of the sort that simply doesn’t exist in the international game.
Having already been humbled 3-0 in Amsterdam back in October, it was a big call from Low. And it paid off. Sane and Gnabry offered the Dutch no reference points and the pair helped Germany to a 2-0 lead, before Ronald Koeman’s crew pegged it back to 2-2. Nico Schulz, whose forward runs down the left were devastating for much of the match, eventually grabbed the deserved winner for Germany in the final moments.
You’re left to wonder though whether this scheme is something we’ll see again on a regular basis. The Sane-Gnabry partnership certainly matched up very well against the Dutch back four in part because, as a group, Koeman’s defenders lacked the athleticism to counter the pair and, in part, because the midfield was more about creating than destroying. Against a more defensive, park-the-bus type opponent, the lack of a central striker with presence — either via guile or strength — may be problematic.
It’s probably also worth noting that as good as Germany looked in the first half, Ryan Babel had two excellent chances that required some old-school Manuel Neuer excellence to snuff out. In other words, Germany remains a work in progress but it’s encouraging to see Low rolling the dice.
As for the Dutch, kudos for the self-belief. Matthijs De Ligt may be a full two years removed from his national team debut, but he’s still just 19 years old. And to see a kid that age stumble badly and then recover with a goal and some sterling defensive work in the second half is evidence that he has the right stuff. The guy has the stigmata of a future captain.
A word too on Memphis Depay. Despite not being as prolific at club level as he was last season, he showed once again that he can be a game-changer. The maturity level has been kicked up several notches since his 18-month nightmare at Old Trafford. If De Ligt and De Jong are the future at the back and in midfield, he’s the future up front.
Spain are still a work in progress
It’s not the best year to be manager of Spain. Expectations remain sky-high after last summer’s debacle and you’re dealing with a generation that will inevitably compared to the giants who came before. (Except, of course, for Sergio Ramos and Sergi Busquets who were part of the giants who came before.) And there’s a whole group of players who were supposed to kick on but, for different reasons, have not, from Isco to Marco Asensio, from Alvaro Morata to Dani Ceballos.
Luis Enrique has coped with it by mixing old with new. He found room for Ceballos, Morata and Asensio in his starting XI against Norway but mixed them in with his golden oldies (Ramos, Busquets). He buried the hatchet with Jordi Alba — rightly so, he was magnificent — finally gave Dani Parejo his shot and recalled Jesus Navas now that he has reinvented himself as a full-back. His squad includes guys like Jaime Mata, who only made his top-flight debut this season at age 29, and his polar opposite, Sergio Canales, whose top-flight debut came at 16, when he was immediately tagged as the next big thing, flopped at Real Madrid and is now finding himself at Betis.
In short, this is a team still being molded and still finding its identity, both in terms of system and personnel. They dominated Norway but — a familiar theme with Spain — failed to convert their chances and settled for a 2-1 victory. (The winning goal? A Ramos “panenka” from the penalty spot.)
There’s a ton of depth, relatively few superstars (but a whole host of “might-be” players) and, most of all, a lot of work to do. But they’re definitely on the right path.
Hudson-Odoi gets his first minutes with England
Callum Hudson-Odoi‘s 20 minutes against the Czech Republic on Friday were a seamless introduction into the England fold. He simply looked the part alongside guys like Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho, the latter of whom is just seven-and-a-half months older but obviously has a far greater body of work. These are players who combine athleticism, technical ability, tactical nous and, above all, flat-out pace to a degree we rarely see at such a tender age.
Gareth Southgate didn’t need to throw him in there — England were 4-0 up at the time — but the fact that he did was confirmation that he excels at reading the moment.
Hudson-Odoi’s future will be decided in the next few months. His contract with Chelsea expires in June 2020 and so far, he’s been reluctant to extend it. Part of it is because the sides remain far apart, part of it because he (and Chelsea) want to see what happens with Willian, Pedro and especially Eden Hazard (all of whom also are out of contract in 2020 and all of whom could also leave).
One of three things will happen: he’ll either tie himself to Stamford Bridge on a lucrative long-term deal, he’ll be sold — Bayern reportedly offered close to £40 million in January and he went so far as to request a transfer — or Chelsea will play hardball, a bit like they did a few years ago with Dominic Solanke, who ended up leaving for free. Either way, Southgate sent a very clear message. Whatever happens at club level, you have a home with the England team. And that’s important.
Don’t read too much into Argentina’s shock defeat
While it’s worth remembering that Argentina’s 3-1 defeat to Venezuela was just a friendly and therefore, to be taken with the proverbial caveats, it’s equally true that this is a badly bruised and battered group following the Russian debacle. Lionel Messi‘s return wasn’t going to fix that, nor were some of Lionel Scaloni’s defensive experiments. Lisandro Martinez, Juan Foyth and Gonzalo Montiel had one cap between them heading into this game.
Diego Maradona got his soundbite in when asked about the game — “It was was a horror movie and I don’t watch horror movies” — before railing, as usual, about the Argentina FA. He’s right in the sense that the dysfunctionality starts at the top but equally, continuous sniping won’t help. Scaloni is introducing youth in difficult circumstances. There are veterans to return (Nicolas Otamendi, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero) and guys who might just step up (Paulo Dybala, Rodrigo De Paul, Manuel Lanzini). And there’s Messi. They could use a bit of support.
Signs of life for Italy
Italy beat Finland 2-0 on Saturday, which is rather a big deal since the last time they scored more than a single goal in a competitive match was way back in June 2017… and that was against Liechtenstein. They’re playing well, they’re aggressive and attack-minded, they create plenty but too often fail to capitalize which is why Roberto Mancini has been auditioning for a reliable goalscorer for some time.
Has he found one in Moise Kean? Let’s not get carried away. He only turned 19 last month and the 90 minutes against Finland were the most he’s played in more than a year. That said he’s direct, he’s strong, he’s technically sound and he works his rear end off.
Beyond that, the midfield was the shining light once again, with Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella, in particular, leading the way. Most of all, Mancini is getting Azzurri fans excited about their national team once again. We hadn’t seen that since Antonio Conte at Euro 2016.