It’s probably been about four months since you paid any kind of serious attention to international soccer. Sure, you heard how Landon Donovan made amends with Jürgen Klinsmann to play one last farewell game in a U.S. shirt, or maybe you were vaguely aware that qualifying had started for the 2016 European Championships — watch out for Iceland! — but really, the year after a World Cup is club soccer’s domain. Nothing truly important happens until next summer, so you’ve got plenty of time before you really need to tune back in.
But guess what? We’ve got another international break on our hands, so there’s no club soccer until next weekend. And since it’s the last such intermission of the year, let’s check in with your favorite European World Cup squads as they’re about to put a bow on 2014.
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Remember the ferocious Dutch attack and their goalkeeper-subbing manager-genius Louis van Gaal? Well, cherish your memories, because the current Dutch team hasn’t quite hit those same heights. After van Gaal departed for Manchester United, the plan was to have Guus Hiddink take over for two years, guiding the team through Euro 2016, and then to hand the job off to Hiddink’s assistant (and Daley’s father) Danny Blind. That plan surely didn’t include losing two of the first three qualifiers, in addition to a friendly against World Cup foe Mexico. (If you include a friendly loss to Italy before Euro qualifying began, Hiddink has lost four out of five.) It’s a good excuse to post this filthy rocket that Mexico’s Carlos Vela unleashed on them on Wednesday, though.
If you thought Manchester United’s struggles were perhaps an indication that the Netherlands had excelled despite van Gaal — rather than because of him — Hiddink is happy to prove otherwise. The Netherlands currently sits third in Group A, albeit in a new, expanded format where the top two teams in each group automatically advance and the third-place teams advance to a playoff, except for one third-place team, which also automatically advances because finding 24 qualifiers is hard.
If there’s reason to worry, it’s because the team is roughly unchanged from the one that played in Brazil. Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder have played in all three qualifiers, while Arjen Robben has played in two out of three. The biggest problem, though, might actually be that Memphis Depay, the team’s best young star, has missed out on national team duty the last few months due to injury. That said, even his return didn’t help much against Mexico this week.
All of this, somehow, has turned Sunday’s qualifier against into a must-win for Hiddink, who said, “If we lose to Latvia then I’ll take the logical step. I haven’t discussed it with the players but to me a draw too would not be acceptable.” I guess if you have to hang your future employment on winning a single game, choosing one in which you host the 99th-ranked team in the world isn’t the worst gimmick.
The good news: Spain has been better since leaving Brazil. The bad news: That’s not saying much. The Spanish sit second in their group with six points and a (group-best) plus-7 goal differential after three games. A 2-1 loss to Slovakia last month put to rest any ideas that this team would keep on crushing things as if the World Cup had never happened. For the near future, though, that won’t necessarily matter, as Spain’s group of Slovakia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Belarus, and Luxembourg is whatever you call the opposite of a murderer’s row.
The timing seems right for La Roja. The team still boasts an absurd amount of talent, but after a generation of game play built primarily on the passing skill of Xavi and Xabi Alonso, it needs to evolve into something else. Cesc Fàbregas and David Silva, players always on the fringes of the team’s setup, should spend this World Cup cycle as central pieces. (Yes, it is insane that Spain was so packed with talent that perhaps the two most creative players in the Premier League couldn’t get consistent minutes.) Younger players like Koke should also get some shine, instead of sitting on the bench behind Spain’s passing mainstays. It’s entirely possible that by the time 2016 rolls around, Spain could be a competition-decimating juggernaut once again. For now, though, it’ll have to settle for just being very, very good.
Win the World Cup, and you’re entitled to your hangover. Narrowly beating Scotland at home, losing to Poland 2-0 on the road, and drawing at home with Ireland certainly qualifies as a hangover. In some ways, this cycle might not be that much different for Germany than it is for Spain. But while Spain stuck with its older generation one tournament too long, Germany has already been forced to begin its renewal movement. Philipp Lahm retired from international duty. Neither Bastian Schweinsteiger nor Sami Khedira has been remotely healthy since the World Cup — though they probably weren’t remotely healthy during the World Cup, either. It’s likely their days as consistent performers for Germany are over. Mesut Özil is hurt, as is virtually all of Borussia Dortmund. Basically, that leaves Mario Götze, Toni Kroos, and Thomas Müller as the holdovers from a World Cup–winning team.
Around that trio, coach Joachim Löw has mixed and matched from a seemingly endless list of young, talented midfielders. Christoph Kramer — last seen scoring a beautiful 40-yard own goal, attempting to one-up the infamy of not remembering playing in a World Cup final — and 21-year-old Julian Draxler both went to Brazil. Others, like Karim Bellarabi and Max Kruse, are complete newcomers. Then there’s Arsenal’s head of social media, Lukas Podolski, who is not young and who has somehow made three sub appearances in a row for the German national team despite barely cracking the field for his club.
Right now Germany is fourth in its group, trailing Poland, Ireland, and Scotland. But as the hangover fades, so too will the subpar results.
Nobody, outside of the people who write his checks, has forgiven Roy Hodgson for England’s performance at the World Cup. And the intervening months haven’t done much to ease the pain. He’s battled with Liverpool over an injury Daniel Sturridge picked up while on national team duty, and he’s told the press that Raheem Sterling asked to sit out a qualifier because of fatigue. In fact, everybody’s so annoyed, it doesn’t really seem to matter that England has won all three of its qualifiers.
And none of that changes the fundamental issues facing Hodgson. For the first time in a long time, England has a dynamic and progressive group of players. In addition to Sterling and Sturridge, guys like Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, and Ross Barkley bring both athletic and creative elements, which are fundamentally different from the grit, effort, and intent of a generation centered around Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and Wayne Rooney. (Rooney is still a fixture of the team, obviously.) Hodgson, however, is a manager more suited to classic tactics and banks of four in midfield and defense. Watching him stumble over all of this attacking talent is like showing someone a picture of a car, only for him to build one out of bubble gum and then wonder why it couldn’t do 60. Despite the results, those problems persist, and there’s nothing leading anybody to believe that’ll change come Euro 2016. But hey, good job beating San Marino.
The European Championships are still a long way away. Barring something truly crazy, all four of these teams will be there, competing (or, in England’s case, telling themselves they’re competing) for the title. It’s the building and the year-to-year transformations that’ll dictate what teams actually show up. All of that — it’s already begun.