France duty gives Paul Pogba a break, Liverpool's list of absentees grows, Spain captain Sergio Ramos won't be rattled, Italy and Belgium are on an upward curve at the right time, Leroy Sane shows he can among world's best, and Norway have gotten creative in a bid to overcome their COVID-19 woes.
It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.
Don't read into Pogba's comments after France win
The world champions could have won by a wider margin if not for some excellent saves by Rui Patricio, and Didier Deschamps experimented with a somewhat different look up front: Antoine Griezmann alongside Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman, with Adrien Rabiot in what had been the Blaise Matuidi role. It's a Plan B, since Kylian Mbappe was unavailable, but it's also telling that he was willing to operate without a genuine centre-forward like Olivier Giroud.
Deschamps may not be the game's most innovative tactical thinker, but he has a very good feel for individual players and how to build a team. It was telling that three of France's best performers -- Griezmann, Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba -- were also three guys who have struggled at their clubs (Barcelona, Real Madrid and Man United, respectively) of late.
Sometimes you hear international managers pick based on form; other times, they go by chemistry. Deschamps, evidently, is a loyalist who treats his national team like a club side: If you've done a job for him in the past, it takes a lot for you to lose your place. All three responded well and it's not hard to understand how, if you're under fire with your club, the national side offers some respite.
Pogba was quite open about this after Saturday's match, telling French broadcaster RTL: "It is a period that I had never experienced in my career before, where I usually always play and always have the rhythm. And suddenly that changes. Little by little, I get my sensations back. I am finding myself again. This is what I have to do all the time and be consistent.
"The national team is like a window being opened, it is a breath of fresh air. I was talking with Antoine and Raphael on Saturday. We were sat at lunch together and we were telling each other: 'guys, I don't know if we realise, but this squad is incredible.'
Inevitably, because it's Pogba and because it's Manchester United, some will do the obligatory reading between the lines and see some kind of criticism of United or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. That's just how the reaction cycle works. And it's a shame, because if Pogba had wanted to unload on the club, he would have been more explicit. He's in the midst of a contract negotiation (his deal is up in June 2022) and has nothing to gain from sniping.
Would it have been better if he had avoided any comparisons to his club? Sure. It would have saved him some grief. Is it surprising that he's happier with France than with United right now? Of course not. He won a World Cup with France and he's a key member of the team, whereas United are underachieving and he's in and out of the starting XI. Again, I like to think he just spoke honestly and if he's pilloried by portions of the media for it, that's a shame.
Lowe: Sergio Ramos mistakes 'very much in character'
Sid Lowe explains why we shouldn't be surprised by recent mistakes made by Spain's Sergio Ramos.
As for Portugal, it served as a reminder that for all their talent, when you're a smaller nation -- not in terms of pedigree, but in terms of sheer numbers -- your options in getting pieces to fit together are limited. You're going to play Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, but he does his best work when there's somebody in attack with him. But with no legitimate striking options (Andre Silva and Goncalo Paciencia were unavailable), coach Fernando Santos made do by playing his best players: Joao Felix and Bernardo Silva. He may have gained in terms of individual ability, but he lost in terms of chemistry and cohesion.
It was a similar story in their defence. He wanted to accommodate two attacking fullbacks like Joao Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro but to do this, he had to play two defensive midfielders -- William Carvalho and Danilo Pereira -- which hurt in terms of creativity.
I don't know what the right answer is, beyond the fact that -- particularly in COVID times, with congested fixture lists and very little time to work on the training pitch -- international management can be extremely tough. By the time the Euros roll around, when they'll get a full month of training camp, expect Portugal (and France, for that matter) to look very different. Right now, beyond picking players and in-game management, there's very little national team coaches can do.
What was Mo Salah thinking?
We don't know, and we may never know, where Mohamed Salah was when he was infected with COVID-19. What we do know is that he tested positive (and, worryingly, is showing mild symptoms thus far), meaning he'll need to quarantine and show a negative test before returning to Liverpool. What we also know is that he was celebrating at his brother's wedding a few days earlier, mask-less, dancing and surrounded by people.
It's not a good look, and it's fair to expect more from Salah. This is needlessly putting yourself at risk. It's extraordinary that footballers, who often have contract clauses that forbid "hazardous" activities like skiing, don't seem to understand the risks involved.
We don't know how long Salah will be out for, or how fit he'll be when he does return. For a club that pays handsomely -- and that is already without Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Fabinho and possibly captain Jordan Henderson -- it's a major blow.
Ramos the story though Spain still a work in progress
A late equaliser from Gerard Moreno gave Spain a 1-1 draw against Switzerland (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.), setting up a huge clash against Germany on Wednesday for a place in the Nations League's final four. But this game will be remembered for Sergio Ramos. He broke Gianluigi Buffon's record for international caps by a European player (177) and he missed two penalties (after making 25 in a row).
Were it somebody else, you might wonder about the psychological implications of missing two in one game (especially when your second miss is a veritable horror show that makes Ademola Lookman's recent penalty miss look good). But with Ramos, you feel it is water off a duck's back. Few players at his level are more adept at shrugging off mistakes, whether defensive or attacking, and simply moving on.
Spain looked better than in previous outings, which isn't saying much, but Luis Enrique's choice of using Ferran Torres at centre-forward backfired badly, and they looked much better with Alvaro Morata on the pitch. Luis Enrique supposedly picks players based on form, which is fine, but just because Torres has done the job up front for City in the past few games doesn't mean he's suddenly a No. 9. It's no coincidence that things worked much better once Morata (speaking of form, he's looked sharp since his move to Juventus) was up front.
Italy's best game yet for Mancini
Italy's 2-0 win over Poland (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.) was arguably the best performance of the Roberto Mancini era (which, ironically, he missed after testing positive for COVID-19). A national team coach can't change the talent levels available to him, but he can change how his group plays and Mancini has done that, implementing an aggressive, forward-thinking possession game that deviates from what we've seen from Azzurri teams of the past.
Two things are perhaps most striking. One is that neither approach nor style seem to change, regardless of which XI he sends out. Against Poland, there were some 20 players unavailable though injury and self-isolation, but seemingly nothing changed. That denotes an ability to impart concepts and tactics in a very short time.
The other is that Italy's deepest talent pool, perhaps for the first time ever, lies in midfield. Nicolo Barella, Jorginho and Manuel Locatelli started and were excellent, but the group also includes Marco Verratti, Sandro Tonali, Gaetano Castrovilli, Stefano Sensi and Lorenzo Pellegrini.
That said, they could use better finishing. Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti are what they are. And it's notable that of the XI who started against Poland, just five (Barella, Alessandro Bastoni, Francesco Acerbi, Alessandro Florenzi, and Lorenzo Insigne) are regulars at Champions League teams. But come the European Championship next summer, after a long season, that may even work to their advantage.
- Nations League state of play: What's at stake in final games
Belgium make light work of England
It's probably a sign of progress that Belgium managed to beat England 2-0 (stream highlights in the U.S.) without breaking much of a sweat. Roberto Martinez's side did get a lucky break for both goals -- the first was deflected at least once, the second came from a free kick (a gorgeous strike from Dries Mertens, in his hometown) that probably should never have been given -- but they managed their early two-goal lead with aplomb and never looked back.
One of the criticisms levelled at Martinez in the past was that his teams were a little too self-indulgent, a little too cavalier and a little too prone to needless errors. Not on Sunday night. They were clinical and efficient and controlled the game against a frustrated England.
Grealish was excellent, Mount less so, but there simply isn't enough quality in the XI seen against Belgium to get away with a more possession-based game. It will be a different story, at least up front, when he can go with some combination of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling flanking Kane from the start.
That's at the attacking end. Further back, the usual limitations remain. There is little in the way of passing quality in midfield and defence. A fit Harry Maguire (provided his mind is clear) and Alexander-Arnold will help, but there is still a ways to go.
Sane puts on a show
Watching Leroy Sane turn out for Germany against Ukraine -- heck, watching a fit Sane at any point over the past few seasons (which, admittedly, hasn't been often) -- serves as a reminder how this may be a team game, sure, but individuals can wreck the best-laid plans at any moment. And few do it as effortlessly or devastatingly as Sane.
When you have a guy who just takes off into space at breakneck speed, any defensive order goes out the window, unless either he makes a mistake or you have really clever, well-drilled defenders. And when he also lays on the sort of finish we saw to equal the score on Saturday -- Germany came from behind to win 3-1 (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.) -- there's very little you can do.
Sane played all of 12 minutes last season at Manchester City and injuries slowed him the season before as well. He turns 25 in January and it feels, still, as if he has barely scratched the surface of what he can do. He already has four goals in seven appearances for Bayern Munich, despite starting just three games. If he stays healthy, and goals like Saturday's become regular occurrences, he'll be as close to unplayable as any German player.
Norway won't give up despite COVID-19 setbacks
Norway had to cancel their game against Romania on Sunday after a player in the squad tested positive for COVID-19. This wasn't determined by football's COVID-19 protocol -- this was a government health decision made by the Norwegian authorities as the team were on their way to the airport.
Let it be a reminder that public health trumps everything else, and that football isn't some happy island that can make its own rules without being bigfooted. Ukraine had no fewer than five players test positive, yet their game with Germany still went ahead.
UEFA will likely award Romania the result by forfeit, but here's where Norwegian ingenuity comes in. They are putting together a new squad made up of players who were not in the original team and will fly to Austria for their final Nations League Group E game on Wednesday. A win by two clear goals would see them top the group and achieve promotion. They'll have to do it without the likes of Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard and with a relative bunch of no-names.
As the saying goes: "Next man up."