Wayne Rooney captain debate is silly, Kimmich ace for Germany, Spain OK
One of the side effects of living in London and caring about football is that you're never far away from the Wayne Rooney debate. That applies to both versions: the Manchester United one and the England one, which has the delightful coda of also being a captaincy debate.
With this being an international break, the focus was firmly on the latter. Some papers called for him being stripped of the captaincy in favor of John Stones. Others revealed that he was going to be dropped for Tuesday's clash with Slovenia despite still training with the team.
If you have no interest in this, I don't blame you. Feel free to skip to the next item. But the way the Rooney tale is unfolding is in many ways emblematic of a different malaise: the inability to see the forest for the trees.
Rooney was just OK in England's 2-0 win over Malta. It's true that scoring five or six might have mitigated the headlines and yes, England weren't as good after the break following a first half when they could have scored four or five. But, really, what does it matter?
You have an interim boss, Gareth Southgate, whose aim is simply not to screw things up until the Football Association decide what they want to do. You have an opponent who puts eight guys in front of the keeper and shows little interest in getting forward until late in the game. You have a captain, Rooney, who is under fire for club and country and who simply wants to play his way out of his perceived slump. You're not going to learn anything significant from any of this. All that matters is that England were bright in patches and won the game.
Frankly, the debate over the captain's armband is grotesque. Rooney doesn't play well, so you punish him by giving the little strip of cloth to somebody else? Huh? If he's not good enough, drop him. If he is, keep him in there and let him have the armband, not least because he has more caps than the next two outfield players combined.
Most nations give the captain's armband to somebody who is pretty much a guaranteed starter and who is the most experienced. That's Rooney -- until he's dropped. Once he's gone, it's a bit tricky because it's hard to tell who is a nailed-on regular on this team. Maybe Joe Hart (for now), maybe Stones (but then he only has 12 caps), maybe somebody else.
What you don't do is heap even more pressure on Southgate, particularly given his interim status. After all, he should not be making decisions that affect the long-term well-being of England. And given the way the media (and Rooney) are, changing the England captain is, for better or worse, one of those decisions.
Gotze, Kimmich show Germany's array of options
Nobody really expects Germany to screw up World Cup qualifying, do they? The world champions clobbered the Czech Republic -- on paper, their toughest group opponent -- in a 3-0 win. It was a commanding performance and, perhaps most of all, it will encourage manager Jogi Low is that Mario Gotze performed better in the "false nine" role than at any point in the Euros. It's not an ideal solution, sure, but until Germany finds a viable center-forward, a rejuvenated Gotze playing at this level is not a bad option.
The other man who stood out was, again, Joshua Kimmich. It's remarkable how the kid can slot effortlessly in Bayern Munich's midfield and then throw on a different colored jersey and make folks forget all about his predecessor, Phillipp Lahm. (Not quite, but you get the picture.) Kimmich plays full-back with the quality of a creative midfielder. It's a fearsome additional weapon in Low's arsenal.
No need to worry about Spain yet
It was a funny international break for Spain and Julen Lopetegui. They dominated Italy away for around 70 minutes in Thursday's 1-1 draw and then did the same to Albania in a 2-0 win on Sunday. The problem is that such total control of possession and territory yielded comparatively little in the way of chances. In fact, of the three goals La Roja did manage over the two games, two were precipitated by major second-half goalkeeping blunders from Gigi Buffon and Etrit Berisha.
It's true that those were the two toughest away fixtures in the group and that Spain are right on schedule to secure an automatic place. But plenty are also pointing out that such dominance really ought to generate more of a cutting edge.
Personally, I'm less concerned. It's true they should have done better, especially against Italy, but it's also true that it's still early in the Lopetegui era. And, crucially, unlike his predecessor, the Spain boss is showing a tactical creativity (witness the back three against Albania) that was previously absent before when Spain simply seemed to rely on being more talented than the opposition.
Simply put, there's still plenty of time for him to get it right.
Italy, Ventura's harsh learning experience
Speaking of Italy, the first 70 minutes against Spain were probably as bad as the Azzurri have played in a competitive match since the defeat to Costa Rica in 2014. And then, three days later against Macedonia, it got even worse as they needed a Ciro Immobile injury time goal to win 3-2.
The concern isn't just that Italy were poor, it was that they were poor in two different ways. Against La Roja, Giampiero Ventura sent out a needlessly defensive lineup (Alessandro Florenzi and Mattia De Sciglio at wing-back, Riccardo Montolivo, Daniele De Rossi and Marco Parolo in midfield) and got stuffed in their own penalty box for most of the game. This wasn't some kind of clever defend-and-counter scheme; it was simply an inability to get the ball into midfield without losing it.
Against Macedonia, Ventura went in the opposite direction with a far more progressive lineup -- Antonio Candreva, Federico Bernardeschi, Giacomo Bonaventura and, especially, Marco Verratti -- but after taking the lead early, simply fell apart. They gave the ball away far too many times, they failed to produce any cutting edge and two massive individual errors put Macedonia 2-1 up. (It could have been more: the Macedonians hit the woodwork and, on another occasion, Gigi Buffon made a tremendous save).
In both games, the Azzurri stormed back with a rousing finale. A late penalty won them a point against Spain and two goals from Immobile gave them all three in Macedonia.
Ventura talked about it being a sign of "character." Point taken, but "character" is in not ending up in those situations in the first place. Character is not playing at home against Spain as if you were Liechtenstein. And character is not throwing away a lead against a team ranked 146 in the world.
Positives? At least Ventura believes in youngsters like Andrea Belotti (22), Federico Bernardeschi (22), De Sciglio (23), Alessio Romagnoli (21) and Verratti (23). He'd better hope they learned from this international break; while he's at it, he'd better hope he learned something too.
Another silly Neymar debate
A Bolivian forward, Yasmani Duk, caught him with a stray elbow, and Neymar had to be substituted with some 20 minutes to go. Duk says that all he was trying to do was "cut off a move, which is what happens all the time in football."
Fine. But in the same breath he also said: "Neymar was being a bit too cocky. He was like that with all of us throughout the game."
Wait: what does him being too cocky have to do with you accidentally whacking him? If he was less cocky, would you have been more careful?
This discussion is nonsense. We have referees to deal with it. This is the same crap -- "too cocky" -- that got levelled at Cristiano Ronaldo when he was Neymar's age. Remember the "wink" against England and the sanctimonious response that followed?
Some players are targeted because of their talent, their look and because of some weird, misguided code of "respect." It's up to referees, and disciplinary panels, to keep order.
It's good to have Strootman back
The Dutch hammered Belarus 4-1 on Friday, and Quincy Promes stole the show as the Spartak Moscow winger scored his first two international goals. But I "marked out" (to use a wrestling term) at Kevin Strootman's performance.
Before his injury nightmare began some 2½ years ago, Strootman was one of the most coveted midfielders around, blessed with size, strength and technique. He's had far too many physical setbacks since then, and you don't want to get carried away, but he has already started more games this season than he did in the previous two campaigns combined.
If he has turned the corner, it's a huge boost not just for the Dutch, looking to bounce back after missing out on Euro 2016, and for Roma, but for anyone who loves big guys who can run and play.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.