With the Premier League on a break, Alex Keble reviews the weekend's international action to pick out the good and the bad talking points.
Sancho, Sterling, and Southgate’s evolution
For the first time in decades watching England is a joyful experience, the days of paralysis and toxicity a distant memory now Gareth Southgate has restored pride. But it isn’t England’s World Cup semi-final appearance, or qualification for the last four of the Nations League, that has made the Wembley crowd seem so relaxed and engaged this week.
Southgate’s tactical intelligence and progressive management style was again on show at the weekend with the likes of Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Declan Rice joining to add new creative energy to the side. England lacked dynamism in Russia, but not anymore; the Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Sancho front three transforms the nation into a completely new entity, ensuring they continue to move forward as we approach a tournament where the semi-finals and final will be hosted at Wembley.
There are tougher tests ahead, but the self-assurance – and cohesion – of the England team is exciting, and that’s thanks to Southgate’s commitment to attacking football. Dele Alli and Ross Barkley roamed behind Kane on Friday to create an aggressive 4-1-2-3.
Daniel James leads Wales’ new pressing game
The best player on the pitch in Wales’ nervy 1-0 victory over Slovakia on Sunday was Daniel James, the match-winner who scored on his first competitive start for his country. James was a menacing presence throughout from the left wing, his directness offering rare moments of incision on an otherwise fairly low key afternoon for Ryan Giggs’s side.
But from a tactical perspective the game was notable for how sharply the Welsh players went into the 50-50s, their snapping approach suggesting Giggs is preaching a high-pressing philosophy. Wales’ tackling led to several half-chances in the first half before performances dropped in the second, probably due to tiredness after having run so much in the opening 45.
James’s winning goal was the perfect example of this approach; he snatched the ball from a Slovakian defender before firing a shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
Memphis Depay excels for youthful Netherlands
A late winner for Germany might have ruined Netherlands’ evening, but they were the better side in a 3-2 defeat and should have taken three points. Their star player was Memphis Depay, who scored or assisted every single Netherlands goal during the international break, following up his two goals and two assists in the 4-0 defeat of Belarus with another goal and assist against the Germans.
His renaissance last season at Lyon was remarkable, but after a considerably quieter 2018/19 his two performances this weekend have come as a shock, especially when prior to the games all eyes were on the young players looking to excel under Ronald Koeman. Unfortunately, the Germany defeat suggested it might be too soon for many of them, as Steven Bergwijn, Frenkie de Jong, and Denzel Dumfries all failed to have a positive impact.
Scotland’s dreadful performances
There was always a danger that the security of a place in the Euro 2020 qualification playoffs, earned by winning their group in the Nations League, would see Scotland take their foot off the gas. And that seems to be case for Alex McLeish's side, who suffered the ignominy of a 3-0 defeat to 117th-ranked Kazakhstan on Thursday.
It was a truly unforgivable result, the kind of national embarrassment that ought to see the manager immediately dismissed. Scotland’s 2-0 victory at San Marino was similarly bereft, lacking in ingenuity or guile; the score line cannot be considered a success given that San Marino had lost 5-0 to Cyprus three days earlier.
McCarthy’s “horrible” start with Ireland
Mick McCarthy gave a damning assessment of his first game back in charge of the Republic of Ireland, a scrappy 1-0 win against Gibraltar. “What a horrible game,” he told reporters. "I hated every minute of it playing against a team with nothing to lose and everything to gain. A horrible game but a great three points to start with. Nothing of the game disappointed me or surprised me."
It was a pretty good way to deflect, since Ireland should have performed considerably better against one of the weakest nations in qualifying. Then again, Ireland’s biggest problem is a complete lack of goalscoring threat, which is without doubt their biggest barrier to Euro 2020 qualification. It says a lot that Preston’s Sean Maguire, with three Championship goals to his name this season, was leading the line in Gibraltar…
Croatia’s post World Cup woes continue
Croatia look a little lost at the moment, the high of reaching a World Cup final perhaps leaving them in an existential crisis. After labouring badly in a 2-1 win over Azerbaijan, in which they scored from their only two clear cut chances despite holding 74% possession, Croatia were beaten 2-1 by Hungary on Sunday.
Luka Modric particularly stood out against Hungary, but not in a good way. The World Cup Golden Ball winner has endured a terrible season with Real Madrid and that form has carried over to the international stage. Without a notable striker, Croatia are ambling on the ball, lacking in any real purpose. Modric’s poor performances are becoming an emblem of their mini-crisis.