Every four years, on a groggy Wednesday or Thursday morning in March, the world comes to a realization: The World Cup is right around the corner. In 2018, that realization has hit.
The 2018 World Cup is months away, of course. But the next time national teams take to fields around the globe, previews will have already been written. Matchups will have been overanalyzed. Excitement will have built.
The buildup to a World Cup is, out of necessity, stop-start. That was precisely the idea behind this column, World Cup Touchline. The goal has been to bridge the narrative gap. To tell the story of qualification. To examine World Cup fandom for grieving U.S. supporters. To turn the page from the PyoengChang Winter Olympics to Russia.
But there is no bridging the preparation gap for managers. There are no clandestine training sessions. The last of the March friendlies concluded late Tuesday night, and suddenly, the next step of the process is World Cup camp. Russia is within reach.
That’s why those friendlies are so important, and so telling. And that is why I watched far too many of them. I caught 21 of the 32 teams in all, plus highlights of the others. I scrutinized lineups. I studied formations. I took note of squad selections, and researched the context in which they were made. And I came away with the following 32 observations:
WORLD CUP TOUCHLINE: MARCH FRIENDLY TAKEAWAYS
1. The lineup that seemed set in stone, the Brazilian 11 that rolled through South America’s qualifying gauntlet, is suddenly no longer so. Thiago Silva started both friendlies against Russia and Germany over Marquinhos. And Tite is tinkering in midfield. Philippe Coutinho slide inside to take Renato Augusto’s central place against Russia. He then moved back out wide against Germany, with Fernandinho alongside Paulinho in the middle. The logical sans-Neymar move would have been to draft Willian and Coutinho on opposite wings. Tite, apparently, craves a bit of optionality.
2. The adjustments are neither inherently good nor bad. Viewed negatively, they’re uncertainty. But viewed positively, they’re flexibility. Tite can adapt his personnel to a given opponent. The balance seemed suitable on both occasions. In a 3-0 victory over Russia, Brazil had little trouble recouping possession in midfield despite the attack-minded change. In a 1-0 defeat of Germany, its chance-creation was sufficient despite the lack of central creativity.
3. No team has more strengths and fewer looming questions than Spain. La Roja, in a 1-1 draw with Germany and 6-1 thrashing of Argentina, really only had one weakness: an occasional emptiness at the base of midfield. But the deficiency is easily explained by Sergio Busquets’ absence. When Busquets returns, 10 of 11 places appear to be claimed, and Spain appears to be as prepared for Russia as anybody.
4. Those 10 starting Spaniards, barring injury, should be David De Gea in goal; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba across the back; Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Thiago in midfield – with Koke the one potential interloper; and Isco and David Silva wide. That leaves only the striker position unfilled. Rodrigo and Diego Costa both placed themselves among the candidates to fill it with one start and one goal apiece in the friendlies. Neither made an irrefutable case for himself, but both made strong ones. Alvaro Morata is still in the mix as well.
5. German manager Joachim Low answered one of our questions for him. The flirtation with a back three seems to have been scrapped. But a few of his own questions remain unanswered. Neither Sami Khedira nor Ilkay Gundogan, nor the injured Emre Can, seized a role next to Toni Kroos in Low’s 4-2-3-1. And Julian Draxler started ahead of Leroy Sane on the left with the rest of the first team against Spain. Both those spots in the 11 appear to be unclaimed.
6. The rest of the Germany 11? Either Marc-Andre Ter Stegen or Manuel Neuer in goal, depending on Neuer’s health; Joshua Kimmich, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Jonas Hector across the back; Kroos in midfield; Thomas Muller on the right; Mesut Ozil in a central playmaking role; and Timo Werner up top.
7. Of the favorites, France remains the undisputed king of uncertainty. Didier Deschamps was one of several managers to experiment with two distinct formations. The first was a 4-2-2-2 against Colombia. The second was a 4-3-3 against Russia. And only four players started in both of them: Hugo Lloris, Samuel Umtiti, N’Golo Kante and Kylian Mbappe.
8. France’s 4-2-2-2 looked more coherent and fluid up front. Antoine Griezmann started alongside Olivier Giroud, and that strike partnership has proven itself to be more than functional. Behind them, the midfield was skewed. Mbappe played as a true winger, mostly off the right. Thomas Lemar was his nominal equivalent on the left, but tended to drop deeper with France in possession to get on the ball. In fact, that’s how the first goal came about:
9. There are two main issues with France’s 4-2-2-2. One is the overlapping run that created the goal. The formation depends on and encourages fullbacks to get forward. But attacking fullbacks require absolute security in possession. Kante and Blaise Matuidi, for all their strengths, don’t offer that. The problem was stripped bare when Kante gave away possession cheaply in the second half. Lucas Digne was caught cheating up the pitch. James Rodriguez snuck into the space he had vacated, and set up Radamel Falcao for the equalizer.
10. The obvious solution? Put a deep-lying playmaker next to Kante. The second issue? That player would be Paul Pogba, and his performances for both club and country have shown he’s not suited for a midfield two. It’s almost as if the midfield three that Deschamps went to against Russia was to accommodate Pogba. And the balance, with Adrien Rabiot also beside Kante, was better. But France’s attacking talent – specifically Griezmann – fits better in the 4-2-2-2. Griezmann and Mbappe both seem like must-starts, and both are better with partners. So the question for Deschamps essentially becomes, Whose strengths do you play to? Griezmann’s? Or Pogba’s? Whom do you need more?
11. England manager Gareth Southgate is all in on a 3-5-2, and seems to know precisely who he wants and what he wants from them in midfield. He wants one No. 6 and two No. 8s. And he wants those 8s – Jesse Lingard and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against both Holland and Italy – to press; to support the two forwards; and even to run in behind on occasion. He has the personnel to fulfill those responsibilities, and he even has a potential tweak – Dele Alli in for Oxlade-Chamberlain – against lesser opponents. (Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling are the probable front two.) Both England showings were promising.
12. Southgate’s biggest curveball was playing Kyle Walker as the right-sided center back in the three. The boss likely considered his squad’s strengths and weaknesses – depth at fullback, uncertainty at center back – and decided re-allocating resources from the area of strength to the one of weakness would be beneficial. It doesn’t maximize Walker’s skill set, but it looks like an option. The other two starters are likely John Stones in the middle and either Joe Gomez or Harry Maguire on the left.
13. Why, though, didn’t we see Eric Dier trialed as England’s third center back? He’d be the obvious candidate. He’s played there for Tottenham. And there doesn’t look like there’ll be room for both him and Jordan Henderson in midfield.
14. Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland each got 90 minutes in net. The four-man goalkeeper competition seems to have been whittled down to two. Farewell, Joe Hart.
15. Belgium, for better or worse, is going to be the most entertaining team in Russia. Because Belgium looks very Roberto Martinez-y. It looks like 2015 Everton with unlimited turbo boosts. Martinez played Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard as a front three in a 4-0 victory over Saudi Arabia. He played Kevin De Bruyne behind them. He continues to deploy Yannick Carrasco, an out-and-out winger, as one of his wing backs. The result is very little defined defensive structure. Even the overmatched Saudis were able to maintain some possession and make far to frequent jaunts into the final third. But at the other end? Holy s—. Belgium was terrifying every time it went forward.
16. Lionel Messi didn’t play a single minute for Argentina against Italy or Spain. Everything the Argentines did in those two games – the good and the bad – is therefore inconsequential. It doesn’t matter who started in attack. It doesn’t matter that the Albiceleste capitulated in the second half against Spain. There’s no utility in analyzing any of this. Jorge Sampaoli’s stumping task isn’t to install his system and figure out which players fit into it; it’s to fit his system and those players to Messi. We know nothing more about Argentina today than we did a week ago.
17. The changing of the Uruguay guard is finally, (almost) definitely happening! After what seemed like seven years of 2010 World Cup retreads in midfield behind Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, it appears Oscar Tabarez really is going to stick with his kids. He started all four of Matias Vecino (26), Rodrigo Bentancur (20), Nahitan Nandez (22) and Giorgian de Arrascaeta (23) in a 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic. He started three of the four (de Arrascaeta excluded) in a 1-0 win over Wales. Uruguay will be exciting beyond its two big-name stars, and seems to be in great shape heading to Russia.
18. Several managers are still experimenting. Still piloting different systems. One of them, of course, is Mexico’s Juan Carlos Osorio. Osorio, true to form, rolled out an 11 and a formation that not a single fan could have predicted two weeks ago. It was a 3-3-1-3 – not a novel concept for Osorio, but a departure from the alignments that carried Mexico through qualifying. Diego Reyes played in front of the back three. Andres Guardado and Miguel Layun were wide in midfield. Osorio was missing some of his attacking pieces in the 3-0 win over Iceland, and reviews were mixed despite the scoreline. But you could see how the puzzle might eventually come together, with Chicharito flanked by Hirving Lozano and Tecatito Corona/Carlos Vela, and Hector Herrera ahead of Reyes in midfield.
19. The biggest worry for Mexico? Injuries. Ugh. Nestor Araujo, who figured to start at center back, was stretchered off in the first half against Croatia. Reyes replaced him, but had to withdraw at halftime with an injury of his own. And his replacement, Carlos Salcedo, also sustained an injury. Araujo’s and Salcedo’s knocks appear to be serious. If they are, both would be big blows to El Tri.
20. Colombia toyed with two different shapes. Carlos Bacca and Radamel Falcao started together against Australia with James Rodriguez underneath. Against France, though, it was the standard 4-2-3-1, with Bacca left out. The 4-3-1-2 could be an option against inferior opponents.
21. In the France game, James was in the middle of the three in the 4-2-3-1, as expected. But he drifted all over the field. With Juan Cuadrado injured (his World Cup status is touch-and-go) and Edwin Cardona suspended (he’ll be back), James was Colombia’s only real creative force. The three goals against France came from a fluke, a high press and a penalty. And the goals didn’t come against Australia at all. Despite the famous result in Paris, there are still attacking concerns for Los Cafeteros.
22. Portugal was another team to try two different systems. Andre Silva partnered Cristiano Ronaldo in a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Egypt. Ronaldo played up front alone in a 3-0 loss to the Netherlands. Needless to say, the 4-4-2 from the first game looked much better. It allows Ronaldo to drift to either wing, relieving him of any positional responsibility.
23. The Portuguese defense is a real worry. Alarm bells might not be going off just yet, because Pepe and Next Big Thing Ruben Dias both missed out due to injury. But the bells are readying themselves. Pepe is 35 anyway. Dias has never been capped. Neither Bruno Alves nor Jose Fonte nor Rolando – who started both friendlies – looks capable of holding down the fort. And there simply aren’t any other options.
24. Poland, like Portugal, tried both its systems, a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1. Unlike Portugal, the 4-2-3-1 looked better – to the tune of a 2-0 halftime lead over South Korea, at which point Robert Lewandowski was substituted. We never got to see Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik together, though.
25. Peru used two slightly different alignments, and looked awesome in both. Both were sub-optimal due to Paolo Guerrero’s absence, but it hardly mattered. Two-goal wins over Croatia and Iceland re-affirmed the legitimacy of an impressive qualifying run.
26. South Korea tried two different formations. Both were, uh … not great! One lost to Northern Ireland, the other to Poland. Whereas some underdogs lack talent but make up for it with a defined and refined tactical approach, the Koreans leave a lot to be desired in both areas.
27. Senegal, after riding a 4-3-3 to qualification, rolled out a new-look, three-at-the-back system. It didn’t yield results, but wasn’t weaponized with a first-choice 11 just yet. Something to watch in May.
28. Panama, similarly, strayed from the formation that got it to its first ever World Cup. It went to a 5-4-1 of sorts. And, well, it got smashed by an understrength Switzerland squad, 6-0. Oof.
29. It only lost to Denmark 1-0, though! And held its own with 11 men until Blas Perez got a red card! And – wait … that’s not really something to celebrate, is it?
30. Breaking news: Egypt is going to be very reliant on Mo Salah. (I know, shocking.) It was outplayed by Portugal, but held a 90th-minute lead against the run of play thanks to a Salah strike. And then without the Liverpool forward, it lost to Greece.
31. Japan was without a few big names – some due to injury, some by choice – and looked like a team caught in between two generations of players at the worst possible time. Friendly results don’t matter, but a draw against Mali and a loss to Ukraine don’t exactly foretell of future success.
32. Saudi Arabia was built to qualify for a World Cup against the odds. It decidedly was not built to even tread water once it gets to Russia. It’s essentially an all-star team from the Saudi domestic league, with 18 of 28 players in the March squad coming from last season’s top two clubs – clubs accustomed to playing with the ball, on the front foot. The roster is full of small, technical players. That roster can carry you through a weak Asian qualifying circuit. But it offered very little resistance against Belgium in a friendly, and could be completely overwhelmed in Russia.
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