England try to find a "Plan B," Cristiano Ronaldo's latest goals, Mbappe's future
The fact that Gareth Southgate switched to a back three in Thursday's 1-0 friendly defeat to Germany only to go back to a 4-2-3-1 in the qualifier against Lithuania on Sunday was read in different ways. He said it was a function of needing to figure out different formations to suit different opponents. It's an interesting take and somewhat different from his predecessors, most of whom believed that the best way to build chemistry was to play the same way each time.
The problem with England having only one way of playing is that against the very best international sides, they become predictable. They don't have the top-down technical ability to impose themselves against a Spain or a Germany, so they need to come up with something different. And that's where the back three can become a possibility.
In some ways, that's the trouble with international football, especially during qualifiers. If you're a side like England, you're going to be substantially better than most of your opponents (especially in their World Cup qualifying group), which means that in most games, the opposition is happy to allow you to have the ball. And then it becomes a question of breaking them down and getting that opening goal, which will often be a set piece, an individual moment of skill or a forced error. Once you're on the scoreboard, things open up, and you can go for more.
Against the best teams, it won't work that way. England will have less of the ball and be under more pressure. Look at the lineup vs. Lithuania -- in particular, the midfield of Eric Dier and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain -- and it's hard to imagine them commanding the play, especially against a press. Not because they're bad players, but simply because that's not what they do.
You can see the logic in what Southgate is trying to do, but equally, it's a big ask. The vast majority of his players have little regular experience with a back three. It's not immediately clear that you can accommodate Adam Lallana, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling if you go three at the back (unless Sterling learns to play wing-back). Perhaps most of all, going with a back three means adding a center-back and that's a role where England don't exactly have a ton of depth, at least relative to other positions.
Still, Southgate is trying to do things a little differently, just as he was a bit outside the box when he recalled Jermain Defoe to the England attack.
The Sunderland striker turns 35 in October, and plenty wonder if it isn't better to give minutes to a younger player. That's what most past England coaches would have done, but Southgate evidently understands that you have to get there first. And given that the starter in Russia 2018 is likely to be Harry Kane anyway, it's better to go with Defoe, who can mimic some of his runs and movement rather than, say, Marcus Rashford, who is an entirely different player.
Ronaldo takes aim at another record
Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice and Andre Silva bagged another as the European Champions downed Hungary 3-0 on Saturday. The win means they stay three points behind group-leading Switzerland, who huffed and puffed to overcome Latvia earlier that day but remain a perfect five wins from five games. The way this group is going, the head-to-head clash in Portugal will likely be crucial.
As for Ronaldo, his goals take him to 70 in 137 international appearances, making him 12th on the all-time scoring charts. It's one of those lists that inevitably leaves many dissatisfied because there's an "apples and oranges" quality to it. Ahead of Ronaldo are some genuine greats (Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Pele) and a bunch of guys who happened to play the bulk of their careers in Asia. It's not being unkind; it's stating a fact that, say, Thailand's Kiatisuk Senamuang (who ranks just ahead of Ronaldo) scored more than half his goals against teams in the bottom 20 percent of the FIFA rankings.
Granted, it's not as if Ronaldo has scored the majority of his goals against Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain, Italy and France -- in fact, he has never scored against any of those nations -- but equally, just four of his 70 have come against teams in the bottom 20 percent.
From what we know about Ronaldo, you'd imagine he might be keen on breaking the all-time record. But the fact of the matter is that he's 32 and Ali Daei scored a whopping 109 goals for Iran in a 13-year career. Getting another 40 goals is simply too big an ask. More realistic -- and perhaps more meaningful, even though it belongs to another era -- is Puskas' European record of 84, which is also the second-highest overall.
You can also imagine Ronaldo looking over his shoulder and wanting to make sure none of his contemporaries catch him. In that sense, the biggest threat probably isn't Lionel Messi (who is on 58 and turns 30 this summer) but Neymar. He and Ronaldo were born exactly seven years apart, but the Brazilian is already at an incredible 51 goals. To put that in context, Ronaldo was 29 when he scored his 51st goal; Messi was 28. Crazy as it sounds, Neymar turned 25 less than two months ago.
Will Mbappe move on from Monaco this summer?
Kylian Mbappe made his France debut in Les Bleus' 3-1 victory away to Luxembourg, with Olivier Giroud netting twice and Antoine Griezmann converting a penalty. France remain on top of what is a tough group on paper, though they can by no means rest on their laurels.
Mbappe's debut comes as speculation continues to mount that Manchester United have joined the hunt for the 18-year-old wunderkind. We're still talking about a guy with just over a year of top-flight football under his belt who has started all of 20 senior games. But such is his skill set and the ease with which he's faced (and overcome) every challenge set before him that you can see why folks are salivating.
I'm not convinced that he will move this summer. Monaco, of course, tend to wheel and deal more than most, and ordinarily they're more than happy to cash in on their stars. But they have plenty other saleable assets, from Djibril Sidibe to Fabinho or Bernardo Silva to Tiemoue Bakayoko. If they have to cash in -- or even just if they want to -- you'd expect one or two of that foursome would go first and provide enough money for Monaco to reload while giving Mbappe another season to develop.
Milan sale saga drags on for another month
The story regarding the sale of Milan becomes more grotesque week after week. A quick recap for those whose eyes glaze over when talking about money and football: Last August, Milan agreed a sale to a Chinese investment group, Sino Europe Sports (SES), run by a guy named Li Yonghong. It valued the club at €740 million ($818m) at the time. SES made a non-refundable deposit of €100m ($110m) with the rest of the cash due in December.
In the meantime, to show its credibility, SES hired a chief executive, Marco Fassone (who had previously worked at Inter and Juventus) and a director of football (Max Mirabelli) to get a head start on their inevitable purchase of the club. Except December came and went and the remaining €640m didn't materialize. Not to worry: SES made another non-refundable deposit of €100m just to show how serious it was. The rest of the cash, the group said, would arrive in early March. Except, you guessed it, they missed that deadline too.
Apparently, SES is blaming government restrictions on taking money out of China but again, there's no reason to be concerned as a new deadline has been set: April 14. This time, they'll be good for the money because according to Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport, SES has restructured itself, setting up a new company in Luxembourg and borrowing some €303m ($330m) from Elliott Management, an American hedge fund that manages some $27 billion in assets. Except, according to Gazzetta, Li's group is borrowing €180m and the other €123m is being borrowed by ... Milan themselves.
To summarise: Milan are effectively borrowing money so that the guy who wants to buy them can complete the purchase. Makes sense, no? (At least Milan are getting a better deal. They're paying interest at 7.7 percent whereas Li is getting charged 11.5 percent.)
What seems to be happening is that Li is effectively financing the purchase of the club by borrowing against the club itself. It's sort of what the Glazers did when they bought Manchester United, except this seems like a far more risky operation, and that's before we even mention the lender itself.
Elliott Management specialises in distressed assets and has been called a "vulture fund." They're not in the business of running football clubs and don't want to be. If somebody defaults, Milan's assets (first and foremost, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, assuming he actually extends his contract at some point) become fair game.
Of course, in the middle of all this is the elephant in the room. Milan's owner Silvio Berlusconi has received that €200m non-refundable deposit, right? He could just say "arrivederci" to Li and his crew, keeping both the money and the 99.93 percent of the club he owns via his company, Fininvest. He could then either sell the club at a discount to somebody else or invest the money in Milan or pay down its debt or whatever. Either way, he comes out way ahead.
So why doesn't he do that?
Blind's use of De Ligt was selfish
Danny Blind is out as coach of the Dutch national team and Fred Grim has replaced him. (From Blind to Grim: insert your own joke here.)
That was the fallout from the Oranje's 2-0 away defeat to Bulgaria, which left them fourth in Group A, six points behind France, three behind Sweden and two behind Bulgaria. Automatic qualification is likely beyond them, but they still control their destiny in terms of a playoff spot given they have home dates against Bulgaria and Sweden coming up in September and October. Still, anyone who saw the debacle in Sofia will have little doubt Blind had to go.
What stuck out most of all was his decision to start Matthijs de Ligt, a 17-year-old centerback who has made two top-flight starts for Ajax plus another four in the Europa League. De Ligt became the youngest Dutch player to ever start a competitive game, which is pretty huge in a country that hasn't been shy in the past about throwing in the kids.
In fairness to Blind, his top three options in central defence (Virgil van Dijk, Stefan de Vrij and Jeffrey Bruma) were all unavailable. But he still had guys such as Wesley Hoedt, who is 23 and enjoying a great season at Lazio, and Joel Veltman (25, capped 13 times) available to him. Instead, he chucked in de Ligt, and it blew up in his face, badly.
De Ligt got lost for Spas Delev's opener, misjudging the ball and looking clumsy as he turned the wrong way and got his legs tangled. That was after five minutes. It got worse shortly thereafter when he failed to close down Delev, who uncorked a long-range strike to double Bulgaria's lead. Never before in a competitive match had the Dutch been two goals down so early.
Blind replaced de Ligt at half-time and his solution in the second half, playing with two giant target men (Bas Dost and Luuk de Jong) wasn't just ugly and predictable -- it was distinctly un-Dutch. It was, no matter how you want to look at it, an all-out debacle for a footballing nation still smarting from missing out on Euro 2016.
De Ligt has the physical and athletic tools to be a very good footballer, and you hope he has the mental strength to bounce back from this as well. In truth, he should never have been put in this position.
It's one thing to blood a gifted youngster -- as France did with Mbappe this year or England did with Rashford last year -- by having him playing a friendly or having him come on late in a game. But to throw him into the deep end in a key qualifier the way Blind did ranks somewhere between irresponsible and selfish.
Hurdles to overhauling the international break
Last week I wrote about a plan to overhaul the international break system by concentrating all internationals in two periods: a two-week break in October and a longer one in May-June. Same number of games, just bunched together.
The column caught the eye of an official at a football confederation. He told me folks had been talking about this sort of reform for a long time and would no doubt talk about it further, but he did raise three counterarguments.
One was that nations with a one or two superstars (think, say, Wales with Gareth Bale) would be hugely penalized if said star happened to be injured during the long May-June break. On the other hand, if qualifiers are spread throughout the year, the risk is mitigated. It's a fair point; it's not reason enough not to reform things, but a good point nonetheless.
Another was that in Africa, travel can be extremely difficult. Distances are long, and often there are no direct flights between countries. That's why, he said, in some cases African teams have to fly via Paris or Frankfurt when playing abroad. That makes cramming in games in a short period of time all the more difficult. Another fair point. Though what I would say is that given the riches at the top, maybe FIFA could pick up the tab for charter flights.
The final point is down to climate. Playing in June simply isn't viable in some African and Asian countries. It's too hot or, in some cases, too rainy, which is why the Asian Cup and African Cup of Nations are played in January. That's perhaps the most valid point of all. I don't think it invalidates the idea of international match calendar reform, but it does mean it requires more work and flexibility.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.