With just three months to go until the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and following the conclusion of the final mid-season international friendlies, we take a look at four bosses who still have plenty of work to do ahead of the start of this summer’s tournament in Russia.
We’ve picked out two key areas that each manager must focus on between now and June if they are to enjoy a successful World Cup campaign.
JORGE SAMPAOLI – ARGENTINA
Over-reliance on Messi
When you have a player capable of producing magic every time he touches the ball, it’s difficult not to try and build your team around him. But Jorge Sampaoli appears to have forgotten that those accompanying Lionel Messi for Argentina this summer aren’t at the level of his Barcelona team-mates. Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala are both likely to be left at home this summer, simply because Sampaoli believes they do not fit Argentina’s style. But what is the style he talks about? Messi’s magic, but as has been the case previously, he can’t win a World Cup on his own.
Playing out from the back
While Argentina are blessed with a plethora of options going forward, the same cannot be said defensively. While Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo and Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi are likely to form the heart of Sampaoli’s defence, his options are limited elsewhere. Trying to get his side playing out from the back complicates matters further. Sampaoli must find a way to shore up the defence and not be the creators of their own downfall.
FERNANDO SANTOS – PORTUGAL
Aiding aging central defenders
With no more international breaks between now and the end of the season, Fernando Santos looks likely to rely on experienced central defenders this summer. Jose Fonte, Bruno Alves, Pep and Rolando are all over the age of 30, but look like they will be heading to Russia at the end of May. The Netherlands made light work of Portugal’s defence on Monday night, and Santos’ primary focus must be ensuring his aging central defenders get the cover and support required. An extra defensive midfielder may provide that, but creativity going forward could be seriously impacted.
The Ronaldo conundrum
Cristiano Ronaldo has shown his quality as a central forward for both Real Madrid and Portugal this season, but his switch from a wide position gives Santos a problem. His side severely lack natural width, and with Ronaldo and Andre Silva in attack, as was the case against Egypt, Goncalo Guedes and Gelson Martins – two players with genuine pace – would miss out to make way for more secure midfield options. Santos must decide whether he wants Silva to support Ronaldo, or whether players who provide width and speed is the way to go.
DIDIER DESCHAMPS – FRANCE
France’s fine margins
Such is the strength of France’s pool of talent heading into the World Cup that Didier Deschamps’ biggest problem comes in the form of selecting his 23-man squad for the tournament. The French boss admitted during the international break that these friendlies were designed to give everyone playing time, but many of his counterparts chose to go as close to full strength as possible in at least one of the two games. Deschamps has to ensure that France aren’t left behind in their preparations.
Pogba’s creative presence
France’s attacking possibilities are endless, but the importance of Paul Pogba cannot be ignored. With the likes of N’Golo Kante, Adrien Rabiot and Blaise Matuidi as alternative midfield options, Pogba’s creative ability from deeper positions could be vital in games in which the opposition afford France plenty of possession. That’s likely to be the case in all three group games, against Australia, Peru and Denmark, meaning Deschamps must ensure Pogba is firing come the summer – even if his frustrations at Manchester United continue between now and May.
GARETH SOUTHGATE – ENGLAND
Creativity is key
Gareth Southgate has moved to lessen the blow of a lack of creativity in midfield by switching Kyle Walker into the heart of the defence and asking him to step out with the ball and get the team moving forward. But that tactic will only get England so far up the pitch. Without a creative midfielder who can unlock defences regularly, the Three Lions will struggle to score the goals they need to challenge this summer. Southgate must hope either Adam Lallana or Jack Wilshere can find some regular form and game-time between now and the end of the season.
Guessing the goalkeeper
Does Southgate really know who he will start in goal when England take on Tunisia in their opening group game? No-one can be sure, with both Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland getting 90 minutes each in the two friendlies. Southgate must decide who gets the nod sooner rather than later to allow the goalkeeper enough time to prepare himself fully, while also giving the defence the chance to build a strong understanding with the man behind them.
With no more international fixtures to be played between now and the end of the season, national team bosses won’t have another opportunity to bring their players together before naming their initial squads for this summer’s 2018 FIFA World Cup.
While there’ll be some happy managers, including Spain’s Julen Lopetegui and Brazil’s Tite, others such as Portugal’s Fernando Santos and Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli have been left with plenty to ponder following mixed results in their two March friendlies.
Here we take a look at five things to consider ahead of the World Cup following the latest round of international matches…
MESSI’S REST WILL SERVE ARGENTINA WELL IN RUSSIA
Will he? Won’t he? No-one was quite sure what was going on with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi during the international break, before he eventually missed both games due to a slight hamstring injury. While there’s no doubt he would have liked to have played against his Barcelona teammates in Argentina’s game against Spain, by not featuring in either of the two friendlies, Messi will have earned himself a full two-week break by the time he plays for Barcelona again. Club boss Ernesto Valverde will be happy, but so too will Jorge Sampaoli, as his key man will be fresher come crunch time in Russia.
WALKER’S THE MAN FOR SOUTHGATE’S DEFENSIVE PLAN
When Kyle Walker was named as the right-sided defender in a three-man backline by Gareth Southgate for the game against the Netherlands, eyebrows were raised. But the Manchester City man showed just why his national team boss has moved him away from his natural position with impressive displays against the Dutch and then Italy. Kieran Trippier will likely start at right-wing back with Walker on the cover, forming a crucial part of Southgate’s plans for England in Russia. The Three Lions will need to be brave at the World Cup this summer, and their manager is leading the way.
BRAZIL’S PROGRESS HIGHLIGHTED IN BERLIN
Memories of that 7-1 defeat in Belo Horizonte will never truly disappear, but Brazil went some way to showing they’ve put that mauling in the past with a 1-0 victory against Germany. Marcelo and Fernandinho were the only two who started that loss four years ago as well as the friendly on Tuesday night, emphasising the transformation Brazil have made under Tite. This Brazil look like the team to beat in Russia this summer, and defeating Germany was a psychological hurdle which will have done them the world of good. They’re joint favourites for a reason.
FRANCE’S OPTIONS COULD BE THEIR UNDOING
Didier Deschamps is arguably blessed with more strength in depth than any other national team manager. The French boss certainly has a plethora of options in every area, but that could well cause problems in itself. He made seven changes from the 3-2 defeat to Colombia in the first friendly for the 3-1 win against Russia, playing two different formations. With so many options, it’s easy to understand why he perhaps doesn’t know his best XI – or even his best formation. The problem is, he’s not going to get many more chances to decide. If France are to go one step further than they did at EURO 2016, Deschamps must make some big decisions – and fast.
WORLD AND EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS? PORTUGAL CAN FORGET IT
Portugal were surprise winners of the European Championships in 2016, but two years on it’s difficult to see them replicating their success at the World Cup in Russia. A narrow win against Egypt, saved only by Ronaldo’s two injury-time headers, and a 3-0 defeat to an experimental Netherlands side, don’t make for ideal preparation and confidence. Very few expected Fernando Santos’s to win EURO 2016, but there’ll be even fewer believing they can enjoy a positive World Cup. With aging central defensive options, Ronaldo’s goals will be more important than ever.
France earned an entertaining 3-1 win against World Cup hosts Russia as teenage starlet Kylian Mbappe grabbed a brace.
The Paris-Saint Germain man opened the scoring just before the break and then sealed the win late on after Paul Pogba had rocketed in a sublime free-kick. Fyodor Smolov made it 2-1 for Russia as they threatened a comeback, but France’s quality eventually told.
Here, we analyse the performance of Mbappe, who endured a mixed evening.
A cursory glance at the scoreline suggests this was a good night for a man deemed the future of French football. But we got to see both sides of Mbappe’s game – the good and the side that reminds us he’s still only 19 and learning the game.
He had missed a glorious chance to open the scoring when faced with a presentable chance following a move sparked by Paul Pogba, before then linking up with the midfielder to open the scoring in style.
His pace and quick feet posed the hosts problems all night and it was those feet that bamboozled his marker late on as he fired in the game-clinching third goal, even though his goal owed a lot to a grisly error by Russia goalkeeper Andrey Lunev.
Work rate – Despite his obvious talent, going to Paris-Saint Germain has meant Mbappe has had to quickly adapt to contributing in a team full of stars.
With Edinson Cavani and Neymar alongside him in attack in the French capital, the teenager is not always the leading light. Like at club level, he played a lot on the flank here and got through his work to make life difficult for Russia’s right-sided wing-backs Aleksandr Samedov and Igor Smolnikov.
Poise – Say what you want about Mbappe’s dip in form in the last few months, but he has definite presence in front of goal.
With his confidence shaken and a glorious chance missed, you might have expected the 19-year- old to wilt under the pressure. But instead he perservered and given a second sniff of goal, finished emphatically.
Collecting Pogba’s perfect pass, cutting past a defender and firing in at the near post.
Finishing – He showed how clinical he can be with a composed finish to break the deadlock, but he wasted a few guilt-edged chances to give his side the lead prior to that.
Maybe it was a case of his recent lack of form in front of goal weighing on the youngster’s mind, but a man of his talent should have buried the opening chance that dropped into his path in the 27 th minute, sidefooting tamely into the goalkeeper’s arms with the goal at his mercy.
Focus – Mbappe switched off in the second half and was one of many culprits Didier Deschamps will point the finger at for a drop in intensity as Russia threatened to get back into the game.
They had plenty of joy down their right flank, France’s left, with Mbappe guilty of failing to give left-back Lucas Hernandez adequate cover, with right wing-back Smolnikov pressing forward and crossing delightfully for Smolov’s goal.
11th min CHANCE: Pogba and Mbappe link up really nicely before the latter holds it up and sends it out to Martial on the left. The Manchester
United man whips it in looking for club-mate Pogba but it’s just out of reach and Lunev gathers.
27th min CHANCE: Pogba’s chip over the defence finds Kante. He tees up Martial whose shot is blocked into the path of Mbappe. He has a clear
sight of goal and really should score, but sidefoots tamely at the keeper.
40th min GOAL: Pogba is again the architect as his slide rules pass splits the Russuian rear guard. Mbappe races onto it and coolly cuts inside his marker to fire low past Lunev at his near post.
43rd min CHANCE: Good feet by the teenager, who receives the ball in the box, then glides by his marker and centres for Martial, who prods goalwards, but Lunev saves.
52nd min YELLOW: Mbappe is in the book for going down too easily. Replays suggest there was contact but no way was it a penalty.
83rd min GOAL: He’s had a mixed game but somehow he’s got two goals, but Russia stopper Lunev won’t want to see this again. Great footwork by Mbappe who gets a sight of goal and fires at the Zenit man, who allows the ball to trickle through his legs.
Mbappe came into the game on the back of a few things he perhaps hasn’t quite been used to in his fledgling career. Criticism and a dip in form.
The former Monaco man has scored in his last two games for PSG but had previously gone seven games without finding the net and even the man himself admitted “it’s not the best period of my career”.
Against Russia he was always a real threat and even though he could have had reasonably expected to net a hat-trick on another night, he was a constant menace for his markers.