European Football

UEFA Nations League Final: A Postmortem

Victory for France but optimism for Spain…

Two weeks ago, we saw the final resolution of the 2021 UEFA Nations League, with France taking home the honors after a 2-1 come from behind victory against Spain at the San Siro. For a competition that many viewed as glorified friendlies, and one that I quite frankly did not care about until Friday, it is safe to say that the semifinals and final provided us with three incredible matches between four incredibly talented national teams. Today we will discuss the two teams in the final and how this result is still a positive for both France and Spain. While these were not the most important games, and the Nations League will never be close to the importance of a Euros or World Cup, these games still told us quite a bit about the teams involved.

Don’t worry, Italians. Your national team will be fine and will still be among the favorites to win in Qatar next winter. Belgians…well…start worrying.

These results were needed for France. The reigning world champions are probably at their lowest point in nearly a decade, having crashed out of the European Championship in the Round of 16 against Switzerland earlier this summer. There was genuine, serious, and sometimes harsh (and sometimes racist, you know who you are) criticism of members of the French team. Rumors of internal strife circled around the team, particularly around boy wonder and penalty misser Kylian Mbappé, and there were genuine questions around the job security of manager Didier Deschamps. Deschamps needed to evolve in his tactical thinking and team selection, and the team needed to evolve in mentality, or else France were gearing up for disappointment in Qatar.

And they have, well, sort of evolved. Deschamps stuck with the 3-5-2 that seemingly failed in the Switzerland game in the Euros, but it has shown signs of progress after the competition. Things are not perfect, the system does not fully work, but it has shown progress primarily due to new introductions in the defense and midfield. Lucas Hernández and Jules Kounde have performed better alongside Raphaël Varane in that back three in the Nations League compared to Presnel Kimpembe and Clement Lenglet in the Euros. Theo Hernández has been a revelation as the left wingback in the system, doing a better job than his brother or Lucas Digne have done in that position for France. The midfield, while not perfect, does function better and feel more connected than it did in the Euros. Paul Pogba continues to shine, while Aurélien Tchouaméni has come in and shined in the more defensive role next to him in the absence of N’Golo Kanté. The system is not perfect, France are still largely dependent upon their individual talent, but it is better than what it was in the Euros and certainly better than the Switzerland game.

France’s front three remained the main talking point of this team, as the struggles of Griezmann, Benzema, and Mbappé in particular during the Euros drew the ire of fans and media. The front three still does not work, we still only have moments where two of the three perform very well together, but there is again some promise and some hope that it can improve. In the Nations League, it was Benzema and Mbappé who shone, both players being central to the two France comebacks. Benzema’s performances were obviously great, and his goal against Spain was obviously a belter, but it was Mbappé’s improvement, and especially him scoring a penalty against Belgium, that should be inspiring for French fans moving forward. Mbappé still had flashes of the selfishness that plagued some of his Euros performances, but he also showed that when he plays to his strengths but still within the system and to the benefit of his teammates, then he becomes unstoppable. Griezmann’s performances were rather muted, though I do not believe that is fully on him, but I still believe there is potential in that front three.

Not lost in this achievement for France is the performances of Spain, and let me tell you, they look really dang good. They are obviously coming off of a phenomenal performance at the Euros despite the criticism that many, including myself, levied upon La Roja manager Luis Enrique and his team selection. They seemed to defy expectations to reach the semifinals of the competition, being the only team in the tournament that truly gave eventual champion Italy any serious issues.

They got their chance for revenge in the Nations League, beating Italy 2-1 in the semifinal in a game that felt much more defiant than the scoreline would hint at. They were less impressive against France, but it took an unstoppable goal from Benzema and a regrettable (but correct) interpretation of the offside rule for Mbappé’s winner to defeat them. This was also a Spain team playing without both main strikers (Álvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno) and without prodigal midfielder Pedri, along with Ferran Torres playing through a metatarsal injury against France. The level of performance they were able to put out given those limitations, and the sheer incredible ability of the many younger players now entering the Spain player pool, is enough to make this current iteration of the Spain team the most promising since the late 2000s/early 2010s Spain teams that conquered the world.

And it is those young players that are the real headline grabbers from a Spain perspective for this Nations League. The main one is Gavi, the 17-year-old midfielder who is the latest in the long line of Barcelona La Masia graduates to take the world by storm. His meteoric rise through the football world culminated with him starting in the Spain midfield in the San Siro against Italy, becoming the youngest player to ever represent Spain at the senior national team level at only 17 years 62 days. He also became the second quickest to earn his first Spain cap in terms of minutes played, having only played 275 minutes of senior team football for Barça. And he was outstanding. In his first senior team Spanish match playing on one of the biggest stages in football against maybe the best national team midfield in the world at the moment, Gavi shone brighter than his counterparts. He was maybe the best player on the pitch for Spain, someone who was able to dominate the game going forward and in defense. He played like someone with significantly more experience than he actually has. Despite all of the negative things happening at Barcelona at the moment, Gavi gives them a reason to be hopeful of a future beyond the crises.

Gavi is also not the only bright young star. Ferran Torres, now plying his trade at Manchester City, is obviously more of a known quality, but the likes of Yeremi Pino, Pau Torres, Bryan Gil, and Mikel Merino all made positive contributions when called upon. Spain’s main Nations League hero might be their most unsung one, with now 24-year-old “not quite young but not quite in his prime” Real Sociedad winger Mikel Oyarzabal being at the center of all of their goals during the Nations League Semifinal and Final, assisting both in the win over Italy and scoring their one goal in the loss to France. Playing as a makeshift center forward but roaming around all positions in the attack, Oyarzabal demonstrated the intelligence, movement, athleticism, and ability on the ball that made Manchester City heavily pursue him a few years ago as a replacement for Leroy Sané. I feel like I say the phrase “best player in the world that few are talking about” too much on this blog, but Oyarzabal certainly falls into that category. Central to Spain’s success in the Euros and Nations League while also having six goals in his first eight league games for La Real this season, it is clear that the Basque dynamo will be central to Luis Enrique’s team in Qatar and beyond.

The more amazing thing about this Spain team is their success comes when you start looking at the players that were not there. The aforementioned young talent is obviously very positive for Spanish fans even with Pedri not being there, but knowing they could still call upon Ansu Fati, Carlos Soler, Dani Olmo, Pedro Porro, Marc Cucurella, Angeliño, Brahim Díaz, Martín Zubimendi, Unai Vencedor, Rafa Mir…you get the idea, right? Football fans have often stood in awe of the sheer quantity of young talent in the France player pool since the mid-to-late 2010s, and Italy and England were slowly added into conversations like that in recent years. It seems like it is time to add Spain to those discussions, as their growing player pool gives Luis Enrique the ability to form a true contender by the time they need to fly to Qatar next winter.

So where does that leave us in general? Well, it is hard to draw significant conclusions from the Nations League, given that it is not the level of competition that a World Cup or European Championships is, but this still gives us a good chance of seeing where we are with four prominent contending European teams. And I think all four of these teams gave it a go in this competition. We can still draw quite a bit about where those four teams are heading into a World Cup year. Italy will be fine, France and Spain we have already discussed, and we are entering the end of an era for Belgium. All of this makes the discussion around 2022 much more interesting, especially with a resurgent Brazil, an Argentina that finally has help for Messi, and a Hansi Flick-led Germany. This is all joined by the potential of England, the Netherlands, and Portugal, as well as the possibility that this is finally the time for an African team to make a deep run. Qatar is going to be very interesting, and while you have to fancy Italy at this point, it has the potential to be a wide open, unpredictable competition.

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