Germany's slump shouldn't result in Low's exit, Italy show signs of regeneration
How quickly things change. Germany went into the World Cup as reigning world champions, Confederations Cup champions and European U21 champions. It wasn't just the present that was rosy, but the future too. And Joachim Low got a big contract extension through 2022.
Fast-forward to the present day. Saturday's 3-0 defeat away to the Dutch -- a team that failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments, featured two debutants (Denzel Dumfries and Steven Bergwijn) and had Ryan Babel in attack -- marked their third loss in their last five competitive games. Germany have failed to score in their last three competitive outings, which may explain why Loew got creative, giving Mark Uth his debut at center-forward. Uth is 27, isn't an automatic choice at club level for Schalke and hasn't actually scored since April.
Break down their last two games -- the defeat against the Dutch and a 0-0 draw with France -- and you'll note Germany created plenty but simply failed to capitalize. That's one interpretation, sure, but equally, you're struck by the number of uncharacteristic individual errors from guys you would otherwise regard as rock-solid: from Manuel Neuer to Jerome Boateng, from Toni Kroos to Thomas Mueller. The way they fell apart late on Saturday also felt distinctly un-Germanic.
Throw in the subplots like Mesut Ozil's acrimonious split from the national side and Leroy Sane being snubbed in Russia, and blowing hot and cold since, and it's a rocky time for Low. Defeat against world champion France on Tuesday could bring them within a whisker of relegation. A result would bring a measure of calm.
But the issues run deeper right now, and it would be wrong for the German FA to react in knee-jerk fashion to whatever happens in Paris, good or bad. The impression is that some of these veterans are still around not on merit but because Low considers them trustworthy because they've won a World Cup together, they're good teammates or because of whatever intangibles you care to mention. That doesn't make it wrong, per se, but there's a balancing act to be struck. It's not easy to look guys who've been to war with you in the eye and ask them to step aside, but then again, Low is the national team coach. It's not supposed to be an easy job.
That, more than the much talked about tactical shift from possession to counter-attacking, will determine Germany's future over this next two-year cycle.
A word about Klopp and Sarri
I touched upon this before, but it's worth revisiting after Maurizio Sarri spoke about it on Saturday. Late in the game between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, the home side were winning 1-0 when Sarri noticed that his opposite number, Jurgen Klopp, was smiling at him.
"Why are you smiling?" Sarri asked, somewhat surprised.
"Aren't you having fun?" Klopp answered with a wide grin.
"Lots!" said Sarri.
"Me too!" replied Klopp.
You may remember what happened next: Daniel Sturridge scored a late equalizer and the two managers embraced, laughing and smiling, at the final whistle.
I tweeted about this on Sunday and, while much of the reaction was positive, invariably there were plenty (admittedly often along party lines) who pointed to the fact that no true winner like, say, Sir Alex Ferguson would have ever been smiling while his team were a goal down. Nor would he have been glad-handing and yukking it up with a rival manager during the game.
Maybe, maybe not. I'd like to think that Klopp was enjoying himself and the way his team was playing, that he knew if they kept playing that way, odds are they'd get a result. Perhaps Klopp even knew that even if his team didn't, there are some things in football you can't control but what matters is how you play. Play well and over time, the wins will come.
Most of all, he knew that looking grumpy and sullen wouldn't increase the chances of his players scoring. Some of you, like those on my timeline, say it makes Klopp "a loser." If that's the case, he's a "loser" who has won two Bundesliga titles (neither at Bayern Munich).
Jardim shouldn't be tarnished by Monaco exit
Monaco's dismal start to the season -- one win in 12 across all competitions, three straight defeats in Ligue 1, third-bottom in the league -- meant a coaching change was inevitable no matter how high Leonardo Jardim's stock had risen in the past few years. His replacement, Thierry Henry, will be making his debut in the coaching ranks, and it's a clear case of being thrown in at the deep end.
The good news is that taking over a team in the relegation zone means success this year is likely defined simply by reaching mid-table, showing progress on the pitch and in the dressing room. That's something you'd imagine Henry can handle.
As for Jardim, he'll no doubt regret the decision to stick around for a fifth season. Being Monaco manager in recent years has meant rebuilding annually while losing key pieces every year: James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao (2014), Geoffrey Kondogbia and Layvin Kurzawa (2015), Jeremy Toulalan and Ricardo Carvalho (2016), Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and Timeoue Bakayoko (2017) and, this past summer, Joao Moutinho, Thomas Lemar and Fabinho. Through all this, Jardim twice finished third, once second and once first, while reaching the quarterfinals and the semifinals of the Champions League.
Jardim is still a tremendous coach; the difference is that given the "what have you done lately?" mentality pervasive in club football, he won't be an automatic candidate for the next big job that opens up even though he should be.
Italy look better than they have in a long time
Watching Italy's 1-0 away win to Poland on Sunday it struck me that I wasn't sure how long it had been since I saw them play this well in a competitive match. Was it against Spain at Euro 2016? The semifinal against Germany in 2012?
It's probably a reflection on how turgid the Azzurri have been over the past two years that you find yourself getting excited by an injury-time winner against Poland who, while not a bad side, aren't exactly Brazil. That said, we saw things we rarely saw from Italy.
We saw them dominate, hit the woodwork twice and create tons of chances while also appearing comfortable with or without the ball. And we saw them ready and willing to take the game to the opposition, with players unafraid to try difficult things and make mistakes. That's a major departure from the blueprint of the past which, even when it was successful, was generally predicated upon a water-tight defence, limiting mistakes, counterattacking and deadeye strikers.
Simply put, it's refreshing to see Roberto Mancini with the courage to play three central midfielders who can actually pass and create in Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella and Jorginho, and who also have guts and personalty. The old Italian notion of having at least one guy who was a pure ball winner "to maintain tactical balance" (but could only pass the ball five yards sideways) has finally fallen by the wayside.
Equally, if you don't have a top-drawer central striker (or if he's injured or off-form: sorry Ciro Immobile, Mario Balotelli and Andrea Belotti) why not play three forwards who can make things happen and aren't afraid to shoot like Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi?
It's hard to say how good these guys actually are or what Mancini can do with this group but they're a whole heck of a lot more exciting (and fun to watch) than anything we've seen from Italy in a very long time.
How to implement VAR for 2019 Women's World Cup
Last month, U.S. women's national team head coach Jill Ellis said that implementing VAR at the 2019 World Cup next summer would be "the fair thing" to do.
"Let's start a plan and a movement to make sure that it is," she said. "I know there's training involved with VAR, but guess what? There's people trained and they just performed in a men's World Cup ... so they're available."
She's right in saying that people need to be trained. You can't just give a bunch of referees, however talented, some VAR equipment and expect them to run a tournament, let alone one as important as a World Cup. (Anyone who saw some of the early VAR snafus in the FA Cup and elsewhere will confirm this.) But equally, her suggestion to just pull the crews who did such a great job with VAR at Russia 2018 into the women's World Cup is odd too.
What about all the match officials in the women's game who have worked their butts off in the past four years? The ones who have worked at the highest level in the women's game and for whom being named to France 2019 would be the pinnacle of their careers? Are you just going to shut them aside for a bunch of male referees?
I get where Ellis is coming from. She wants equality, but it should not come at the expense of all those female referees who, often for little pay, have made great sacrifices for the love of the game and the love of officiating. The answer is to create a pathway for female referees to be trained on VAR, starting -- as they did in the men's game -- with regional and youth tournaments and, ideally, top national leagues as well. And that means devoting funds and resources to it.
That's how FIFA can show their commitment to the women's game, not by depriving a bunch of women their place at a World Cup.
Red Star match-fixing story doesn't pass the smell test
Paris Saint-Germain and Red Star Belgrade responded angrily to the match-fixing claims reported in the French newspaper L'Equipe and it's not hard to see why: These are very serious accusations. And some of the details, frankly, are hard to believe.
According to L'Equipe, an unnamed Red Star official was suspected of betting a total of €5 million ($5.8m) on PSG to win by a five-goal margin.
I asked several people in the gambling industry -- a bookmaker, a member of a gambling syndicate and a guy who monitors betting markets for unusual activity -- and they all concurred that the report "doesn't pass the smell test." The market to back a team by five goals is not particularly liquid; many bookies don't even offer that bet and if they do, they would only accept very small bets. Anything big would arouse suspicion. One estimated that to put that much money in a bet like that, you'd need to hit up tens of thousands of bookmakers. And there simply aren't that many around.
This doesn't mean that the story isn't true. Law enforcement will hopefully determine whether it is or is not. If it is true, one would think the wires likely got crossed somewhere along the line and any bets most definitely didn't involve €5m on PSG to win by five goals.