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…