Twenty-three nations entered the final international break of the 2018 World Cup qualification cycle having booked their trips to Russia. And while much of the attention over the past seven days has been on those nine unclaimed spots, 22 of the 23 kick-started their World Cup preparations with at least one friendly. Many scheduled two.
The main, overarching takeaway from those 26 games is that there are no real takeaways. That these are exhibitions, and that the World Cup is a full seven months away. It’s certainly not time to overreact.
But there were a few eyebrow-raising results, a few intriguing lineups, and a few developments to keep an eye on going forward. And are 10 takeaways from the non-competitive side of the international break:
1. Argentina’s problems persist
You know all about Argentina’s qualifying struggle. You may or may not expect their problems to persist all the way through the World Cup. But they sure didn’t just evaporate along with the pressure of CONMEBOL qualifiers. La Albiceleste needed a late Sergio Aguero header to beat Russia on Saturday, then was thrashed in the second half by Nigeria on Tuesday, ultimately losing 4-2.
To be fair to Jorge Sampaoli, it was unrealistic to expect the problems to be solved immediately. The hope is that, with job security, no must-win matches, several that will function as experimental laboratories and seven months to prepare, the Argentine boss will have his team ready in June. But the two friendlies drove home the fact that the problems are real. They won’t just magically disappear. They need fixing.
2. Nigeria, on the other hand …
The Super Eagles were awesome on Tuesday in Krasnodar. Like, go-to-the-bank-take-out-money-drive-straight-to-Vegas-at-twice-the-speed-limit-to-place-a-bet-on-them awesome. The Kelechi Iheanacho-Alex Iwobi duo is all kinds of fun. They combined for three of the four Nigeria goals, and set up the fourth.
GOAL!@NGSuperEagles take the lead in this bonkers (in a good way) game!
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) November 14, 2017
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) November 14, 2017
The Nigerians are in Pot 4 for the draw, which is a shame for them, but more so for the three teams that end up in their group. And it could end up being a blessing for neutrals hoping for a Group of Death.
3. Mexico looked good
It didn’t leave viewers awestruck. There’s no need to overreact. But we already know Mexico is good. El Tri simply reaffirmed that in friendlies against Belgium and Poland. Juan Carlos Osorio’s side drew 3-3 in a thriller in Brussels, with in-form winger Hirving Lozano notching a brace. It then knocked off Poland 1-0 in Gdansk. Osorio rotated his 11 between games and within them, but every unit that saw the field impressed.
4. England, despite not scoring, might have looked even better
Two 0-0 draws. Typical, dull, boring England, right?
The Three Lions held Germany and Brazil scoreless over 180 minutes. They did so with a makeshift side that featured the likes of Joe Gomez, Harry Maguire, Jake Livermore and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. (Those four weren’t just in the squad, mind you; they didn’t just play; they started.)
Manager Gareth Southgate is seemingly all-in on a back-three experiment that began last March in a friendly against the Germans, continued in a June friendly against France, and resume in the final (meaningless) qualifier against Lithuania. It probably suits England’s personnel, because it requires one fewer central midfielder. And it’s probably here to stay, at least for the big games, if Gomez, Maguire, John Stones, Kieran Trippier, Ryan Bertrand, Jordan Pickford and a few others can keep the two best teams in the world off the board.
5. Germany and France try to sort out their first-choice 11s
Neither Germany nor France has problems. But their managers do have dilemmas – namely, that they have too many good players. With neither at full-strength, there wasn’t too much to glean from their 2-2 draw on Tuesday, nor from France’s 2-0 victory over Wales, nor from Germany’s draw at Wembley. But it was interesting to see Alexandre Lacazette bag two goals for France in Cologne – four days after both Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann scored against Wales in Paris. There is no wrong answer to Didir Deschamps lineup questions … until France shows signs of weakness, at which points there are wrong answers and they are automatically whatever Deschamps has chosen. Les Bleus look great, but the next seven months of debate will be engrossing.
6. All hail Left Wingback Nacer Chadli
Seriously, Roberto Martinez is playing West Bromwich Albion winger/attacking midfielder Nacer Chadli on the left of a 3-5-2. And it’s … working?
— Enzio Houwaart (@EnzioHouwaart) November 14, 2017
Belgium beat Japan 1-0 on Tuesday. It drew Mexico 3-3 last week, but without its top two center backs. Martinez is going to have some selection dilemmas of his own, especially if he remains committed to this back three despite a lack of natural wingbacks. He can’t really fit all four of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku into the formation, even if De Bruyne slots into midfield. But Belgium stormed through qualifying, and made an overall positive impression in the two friendlies. So we can’t really question Martinez just yet.
7. The Pot 1 outsiders
Each of the eight teams in Pot 1 for the World Cup draw played two friendlies. France, Portugal and Belgium scored four goals apiece; Argentina, Brazil and Russia bagged three each; Germany got two. Poland, on the other hand, went scoreless over 180 minutes. Now, the Poles didn’t have Robert Lewandowski, which is a pretty darn big asterisk. But that’s kind of the point. For a top-seven team, their attack is awfully reliant on one player when they come up against World Cup-caliber teams.
Meanwhile, Spain, in Pot 2, scored eight over 180 minutes against Costa Rica and Russia.
8. A first real look at Russia
Solely based on past results and superficial scan of the roster, Russia looks like the worst of the 14 European teams. It bowed out of a weak Confederations Cup in the group stage, despite being on home soil. But other than that, there really isn’t much evidence on which to base our opinions of the hosts.
That’s why two friendlies against Argentina and Spain were noteworthy. In the first, Russia was thoroughly outplayed, but held out until the 86th minute. Then, in the second, it exploded for three goals against a mostly first-choice Spanish defense (including David De Gea and Sergio Busquets). So, basically … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
9. The Yanks
They’re not a World Cup team, but an experimental American side went toe-to-toe with a similarly experimental Portuguese team. Portugal had beaten Saudi Arabia 3-0 four days earlier, but was largely stifled by the Yanks. Here are some takeaways from the U.S. perspective.
10. All 26 scores
Make of them what you will …
Iceland 1-2 Czech Republic
Iran 2-1 Panama
China 0-2 Serbia
South Korea 2-1 Colombia
Brazil 3-1 Japan
Belgium 3-3 Mexico
Poland 0-0 Uruguay
England 0-0 Germany
France 2-0 Wales
Portugal 3-0 Saudi Arabia
Russia 0-1 Argentina
Spain 5-0 Costa Rica
Iran 1-0 Venezuela
Bulgaria 1-0 Saudi Arabia
Poland 0-1 Mexico
Qatar 1-1 Iceland
China 0-4 Colombia
Russia 3-3 Spain
Austria 2-1 Uruguay
South Korea 1-1 Serbia
Hungary 1-0 Costa Rica
Belgium 1-0 Japan
Germany 2-2 France
Wales 1-1 Panama
England 0-0 Brazil
Portugal 1-1 United States
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.