Hello, and welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. This week we are sponsored by pastéis de nata.
We’re on the way to Wembley. And Baku. And Bilbao.
As Tactically Naive grows older and wiser, and as football grows louder and sillier, we are starting to reassess The International Break. That might just be because we’ve started capping up the first letters, which can make anything sound more important. The Proper Noun Effect. See?
But it might also be because The International Break is pretty good fun, and a welcome change from the headlong clatter of the club game. This Break in particular is nicely timed: the title races are all prepped, the relegation scraps likewise, and the Champions League is down to the last eight. Here is a moment to gather thoughts, before we all charge down the hill screaming towards May, towards silverware and misery.
In Europe, qualifying started for Michel Platini’s Grand Tour, which you may know by its other name, Euro 2020. The start of a qualification process is always a beautiful moment, as the entire continent is still in play. Every nation went into this week fresh-faced and full of hope. Let’s have a quick look at what happened, and just how long that hope lasted …
The undoubted Big Game of the weekend — see? Capital Letters, baby! — was the Netherlands against Germany. In fact, this might well amount to the biggest game of the whole qualifying process, since the larger teams are fairly well spread out. And fittingly, it was extremely good fun.
Germany took the lead through Leroy Sane early in the first half, then doubled their advantage shortly before the break. The second goal was particularly delicious: Serge Gnabry twinkle-toesing his way across the defence, before wrapping a shot around the considerable frame of Virgil Van Dijk.
Back came the Netherlands in half number two. First Matthias De Ligt nutted the ball home from a set piece, then Memphis Depay picked up the equaliser. Turns out, nearly falling over the ball to confuse everybody is a really cute trick, as long as you’re the first to recover.
Then, as the 90th minute began, Marco Reus sprang the Dutch offside trap, entered the left side of the penalty area, and poked the ball across to Nico Schulz, who slid the ball home. Well, “slid” is doing a lot of work there: in his quest to find the bottom right hand corner, he ended up clearing out his own standing foot. But! The finish was good, and Germany took the points. Looks like that blip lasted less than a year.
After the Lord Mayor’s show comes, apparently, the Lord Mayor’s utterly miserable hangover. Drawn into a friendly-yet-potentially tricky group, last year’s World Cup finalists began with a win over Azerbaijan, but then threw away a lead against Hungary.
Has the universe finally noticed that Ivan Perišić wears no. 4, and decided to punish him accordingly? Has Ivan Rakitić actually swapped places with Neil Patrick Harris, who we’re assuming, perhaps unfairly, isn’t that good at football? Or are Croatia just being Croatia, maddeningly inconsistent and thrillingly unknowable?
Whatever the answer, after two rounds Group E looks frankly weird. Four teams have three points; only poor Azerbaijan have nothing. Early days, of course, but this could end up being a proper mess. And who knows: perhaps one day, we’ll look back at Croatia’s slip, and Wales 1-0 thrashing of Slovakia, and think: this is the moment Wayne Hennessey began his march towards European glory.
It’s been more than 20 years since Scotland made their way to a major tournament, and they began this campaign by losing to Kazakhstan, who sit at a comfortable 117th in FIFA’s rankings. Not good, obviously. But even more worrying than the result was the manner of the result: the defending was miserable, the attacking incoherent, and the home side comfortably controlled the game.
Afterwards, words like “ignominious”, “hapless”, and “abject” appeared in match reports, and much worse words appeared everywhere else. The coaching staff, meanwhile, called on their players to roar back in their next game, against San Marino, who are officially the worst team in the world. Here’s assistant coach Peter Grant:
They have to make a statement, it’s not about looking to. They have to do it.
And they did. They won! And they scored twice. Tremble, Europe. Scotland are coming.
If ever a man deserved a break
You might think that the sight of “Messi, Lionel” on a squad list could only be a good thing. But you’d be wrong, because César Luis Menotti says so. As Argentina geared up for friendlies against Venezuela and Morocco, their World Cup-winning former manager told the world:
It scares me that Messi plays. I see him emotionally fatigued between the Champions League and the national team. I see him very tired. He has a lot of obligations and with a lot of emotional baggage, a lot of responsibilities at his feet.
And no wonder. Argentina went full Scotland against Venezuela, deservedly losing 3-1. Obviously friendlies are tricky things to assess, but on the basis of this we’re confident in two things. One, the Argentina national team will remain upsettingly less than the sum of its parts. And two, Menotti is a psychic genius and can buy TN a lottery ticket any time he likes.
Non-league of the week
The international break — sorry, The International Break — doesn’t stop all football, of course. Only the big, shiny stuff. The lower leagues keep pottering on, reminding us all that football might be good when it’s good, but it’s best when it’s ropey as hell. Our thanks, then, to Whickham FC, of the Northern League Division One, for this.
Note: if you’re in a public place, or have an aversion to a spot of adult language, best watch this on mute.