Tactical and Analytical points of view on what’s happened in football at the international level this weekend of March 2021
International football never offers the sophistication or thrill of club football, especially in mid season, but the intrigue, the unknowns and the anticipation for what each team will achieve remain.
For this opening episode, the range of options was more reduced, since I got to watch less matches than I normally would during the club season. But for how intermittently national teams are in action, there were some conclusions to draw from most games.
Three standout games at the international level this weekend of March 2021
1- Norway 0–3 Turkey
Norway and Turkey appeared like two candidates to be dark horses in upcoming tournaments, but only one team clearly earned that distinction on Saturday. Turkey had a very complete encounter, collectively and individually.
From a tactical point of view, they started with a mid block and with 35-year-old Lille striker Burak Yılmaz being key in attracting the centre-backs to make room for the runs from behind from the midfielders. Once they got the lead, they felt equally comfortable with a lower line. They always knew very well what to do.
In terms of personnel, coach Şenol Güneş has many excellent footballers who shone in the game: Yusuf Yazıcı, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Çağlar Söyüncü, or Ozan Tufan, who scored a brace. Their squad’s average level is actually very high, which contrasts with Norway, who may grab more attention for two or three exceptional prospects in especially Martin Ødegaard and the inevitable Erling Haaland.
On a positive note for them, pivot Patrick Berg shows his class with every touch and the 22-year-old is certainly ready for much more than Bodø / Glimt – with all due respect to this lovely club. Also, Erling Håland’s partner Alexander Sørloth may appear clumsy at times, but his technique is far from mediocre.
A more contentious point of debate for Norway is: a 4–4–2 makes sense for having two excellent strikers for Norway’s standards, and it is a formation that is not uncomfortable for Martin Ødegaard either, since he can cut into his left foot and deliver crosses into the targetmen, have freedom to attack the right half-space, and characteristically drop deep to offer support in build-ups.
But it is also the position where the distance between Ødegaard and the 9s is the largest, more than if he was an interior or a winger. Ståle Solbakken has much work to do if he doesn’t want his golden gems go to waste on an international level.
2- Spain U21 0–0 Italy U21
A classic in youth international football ended in a goalless draw, which preserved Spain’s chances of progressing into the knockouts of the U21 Euros, and also kept Italy alive. The Italians were little menacing in attack and opted for a lower rhythm, with Nicolò Rovella to dictate his team’s tempo from the base of the midfield.
In a clash where defenders stood out, centre-backs Enrico Del Prato and Jorge Cuenca, and debutant Óscar Mingueza – first at right-back and then at the heart. of the defence –, all had faultless performances. In Spain’s midfield, Gonzalo Villar continued to inspire with his elegant and vertical ball-carrying, and the tiny Manu García left a great impression as well with his low centre of gravity and turns.
If Manu has the traits of the prototype Spanish midfielder, Villar being an exception for his preference for dribbling over passing is what makes him so unique.
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3- Georgia 1–2 Spain
Like Greece, who got a draw from Spain in the previous fixture, national teams who have to do without possession seem to be feeling increasingly at easy in these situations.
Georgia used a very compact mid block with many players between the lines to oblige their opponents to think fast, and their 4–2–3–1 in defence with their number 10 on Sergio Busquets and the two pivots on Fabián and Pedri blocked all options for La Roja to progress centrally.
With that lane overcrowded, the solution had to be found on the flanks, but that’s where Spain’s structural failures got exhibited. Wingers Bryan Gil and Ferran Torres were very wide playing on their natural flanks, but this prevented the overlapping runs from Jordi Alba and Pedro Porro – who currently act as wing-backs at their respective clubs but were low full-backs on Sunday.
Fabián or Pedri frequently attempted to drop deep and free space in attack, but Georgia’s defenders never fell into the trap.
In the end, Dani Olmo proved to be the decisive substitute from Luis Enrique as he came on at half-time. Replacing Bryan Gil, Olmo occupied a position between the lines rather than staying glued to the touchline, thus having a double effect: it gave Spain an extra passing option centrally, and it freed the wing for Jordi Alba. The chemistry between Alba and Olmo eventually was the key connection for the late comeback.
More than a tactical move from a manager, I instead wanted to raise a discussion on national teams. Meritocracy makes sense for these occasions, but at the end of the day, isn’t trusting a backbone a greater guarantee than relying on the players who are in best form?
That was visible in Spain’s duel with Georgia, as having too many new footballers broke the cohesion of the side and there were too many issues that Luis Enrique couldn’t solve due to the lack of training and preparation.
So, should a national head coach play his country’s best players and adapt to them, or use the players that best adapt to the system even if they are slightly less good?
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