Didier Deschamps is a throwback. In a world of pressing and high lines, he is different. He sits his defence deep, gives the full-backs limited licence and keeps his midfield three relatively deep in front of them. But when you have a squad as strong and as gifted as France do, and particularly a forward as fast, intelligent and lethal as Kylian Mbappé, it works. There may always be a sense with France that they could be so much more, but they’re unbeaten in the Nations League, reached the final of the last Euros and won the World Cup.
Remnants of the so-called Golden Generation remain, but there is also a wave of exciting young talent beginning to emerge. A failure of belief, as much as anything, seemed to cost them against France in the World Cup semi-final two years after a tactically brilliant win over Brazil in which Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thomas Meunier excelled. Last Sunday’s performance at Wembley, without a number of key players, was nothing like them at their best.
They won the last Euros, they won the first Nations League, they top their group this time round, they have a squad packed with extravagantly gifted midfielders and forwards – and yet they’re a hard watch. Fernando Santos, like Deschamps, is a manager who eschews the high-tempo pressing of the club game for something more pragmatic. But simplicity goes a long way with players who train together only rarely. His biggest issue may be accommodating an increasingly static Cristiano Ronaldo, deadly as he remains when the ball reaches him.
England’s five matches this year have all provoked complaint, but only two goals have been conceded – both penalties, one of them extremely questionable. After scoring 38 goals in 10 games (two lost) in 2019, that represents a welcome solidity – and after all the doubts about Gareth Southgate tactically, he changed the game against Belgium by successfully shutting down Lukaku after half-time. There are a wealth of creative options and, while centre-back and goalkeeper remain concerns, with England’s group games, the semis and final scheduled for Wembley, this is their best chance of success at a tournament since 1996.
After the failure to qualify for the last World Cup, there has been a major improvement from Italy under Roberto Mancini, even if there must be concerns about the age profile of the side, along with the lack of pace and a reliable source of goals. That said they were the only side other than Belgium (who had a much easier group) to win 10 out of 10 in qualifying, and they’re unbeaten in the Nations League. Defensive solidity is the key: in 14 games across the two competitions, they’ve leaked only six goals.
Spain’s World Cup was undermined by Julen Lopetegui’s dismissal on the eve of the tournament, and background issues have rumbled on with the uncomfortable end to Roberto Moreno’s temporary reign. But on the pitch there had been promising signs from Luis Enrique’s side, at least until Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat in Ukraine. They dropped only four points in a relatively testing Euro 2020 qualifying group and still top their Nations League group, but this remains a side between generations.
The days when Jogi Löw was hailed as the backroom tactical genius behind Jürgen Klinsmann seem a long time ago. He was fortunate to retain his job after a dreadful World Cup and there’s been little sign of improvement despite an exceptionally talented squad. His Germany were at their best as a counterattacking side: every attempt to make them more proactive has rendered them defensively vulnerable, as they showed in conceding three to both Turkey and Switzerland in this international break.
Having missed out on Euro 2016 and the World Cup, the Netherlands recovered under Ronald Koeman to reach the final of the Nations League after memorable home wins over France and Germany. More than anybody, they brought the high-line, high-risk football of the club game to the national side. But as key members of the Ajax side that reached the 2019 Champions League semi-final dispersed, their form suffered and there were concerns even before Koeman left for Barcelona. The club record of his replacement Frank de Boer limits optimism.
The story of Polish football for the past two decades has been of occasional impressive qualification followed by underperformance in the finals, and precedent must temper any expectation. Jerzy Brzeczek’s side, though, twice beat Austria in qualifying and lead a Nations League group that includes the Netherlands and Italy. Nine clean sheets in those 14 games is indicative of a solid base. Mateusz Klich knits the midfield and Robert Lewandowski is the most complete centre-forward in the world.
Russia’s performance at their 2018 World Cup was widely attributed to home advantage, but they breezed through qualifying with eight wins out of 10 – albeit with two comprehensive defeats to Belgium – and top their Nations League group. Stanislav Cherchesov’s 4-2-3-1 has proved highly effective, largely because the spearhead, Zenit’s Artem Dzyuba is, at 32, in the form of his life, a goal threat who excels with his back to goal, linking effectively with Anton Miranchuk.