World Cup fine-tuning, Tuchel's job search, Ibrahimovic-Sweden saga
The good news? It's Monday. And that means we've got five days until meaningful football returns.
It will do so with a bang: Manchester City travel to Everton, Sevilla host Barcelona, Juventus take on Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco meet in the French League Cup final and there's the Bundesliga's answer to El Clasico: Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund.
How's that for a pick-me-up?
Let's be clear: This is not a knock on international football. As a long domestic season comes to an end with very little to be settled -- bar Serie A and the Champions League -- you're up for something new. So roll on the World Cup.
But the issue, as we discussed on ESPN FC TV last week, is that we are simply not accustomed to two weeks of nothingness. We can just about stomach it in the summer because the promise of a new season is around the corner and, perhaps just as important, there's an open transfer window.
But this is different and the fact that this type of international break rolls around only every four years makes it tougher to cope. And yet, it's necessary. A bit like a trip to the dentist: it's not fun, but we'd be far worse off if it we didn't go through it.
The deadline for qualified countries to submit their 30-man provisional squads is May 14. But because some leagues do not finish until a week after that and the Champions League final is on May 26 -- plus there's a mandatory "rest period" -- pre-World Cup training camps don't actually begin until May 28. That means that managers will have one week to cut their squads from 30 to 23; lists are made final on June 4, and 10 days later, the World Cup begins.
In other words, beyond those seven days before final squads are submitted, this international break is the last chance for managers to assess what they have and what they can get. And it's not just about measurables. You can tell who is fast, who is strong and who is skillful when you watch club football. What you can't tell is how players fit into a different tactical system with different players.
A winger playing with a target man who holds up the ball may move and play differently from one who plays alongside a Sergio Aguero type. Can that wide man adjust his game? If so, how well can he do it? And what other allowances do you need to make?
Note that you don't just learn this from playing friendlies. In fact, many times such games tell you very little. Your opponent is usually experimenting as well, you're limited in terms of time and substitutions and you need to worry about the result because if you lose, it can affect confidence and get the media on your back.
So it's not just about what happens on the pitch. A team that goes deep in a tournament will be together for seven weeks, sequestered away in hotels. Highly competitive young men are under intense pressure and, in most cases, walk the tightrope between being supportive and hoping the teammate who plays their position falters just enough that they get a chance.
In those situations, you need to get the right mix of people. Team spirit and morale matter more than ever -- just ask Raymond Domenech and France -- not least because there is no outlet, no safety valve: those involved don't return home to their friends and family after training.
And that's why 10 days in March really matter. It's an opportunity for a coaching staff to get to know their squad and evaluate them as people. The history of the game is littered with managers who talked about certain players going along to major tournaments not necessarily because they were better, but because they were good for morale, they were "dressing room guys."
Obviously, this doesn't apply to the superstars or the cast-iron starters. But few teams -- certainly among the big ones -- have more than a dozen guys who fit that description. Everybody else, to varying degrees, is "on the bubble" and expendable. As such, coaches want to be sure they are not taking someone who will be a malcontent or cause trouble. Particularly if he's not a starter.
Indeed, that's why some managers, like Argentina's Jorge Sampaoli, would rather not have played friendlies at all during this break. He would have much rather have spent his time coaching, teaching his players a system and philosophy and making sure it became second nature. Instead, he had to face Italy on Friday -- Argentina won 2-0 -- and Spain on Tuesday.
Why? Because high-profile friendlies bring commercial income and TV money to national federations. And every FA will tell you it can always use more money. That's the reality of the international game, which is squeezed by club football in every direction.
So rest assured, this break was valuable, and managers -- good ones, anyway -- did learn a lot, even if the most valuable lessons were perhaps taught away from the 180 minutes spent on the pitch.
Tuchel trying to stay in the spotlight
I'm a huge Thomas Tuchel fan, dating back to his days at Mainz, and am evidently not the only one, since he's been linked with Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in the past week alone.
When you're out of work, it's good to keep your name out there because decision-makers at clubs rarely go beyond reputation. They are also often slow and indecisive, which is why signing new managers is often more like a long courtship in which you make sure you maintain a Plan B and Plan C.
Tuchel is one of the out-of-work A-listers, like Carlo Ancelotti and Luis Enrique. Unlike the other two, though, he hasn't won the Champions League, so he has to work that little bit harder to keep his name in lights. (Hiring decisions are typically made by club officials but get signed off by owners; it makes a huge difference if the owner knows who you are.)
Tuchel was one of several German managers linked to the Bayern job, though the club appear to have ruled him out. The story linking him to PSG comes -- not coincidentally, perhaps -- from a German reporter, who habitually covers Bayern. The Arsenal link has been around for a while, though Arsene Wenger has a contract through 2019, and Tuchel has also emerged as a candidate to replace Antonio Conte at Chelsea.
The funny thing about this is that, brilliant as Tuchel is, there are obvious caveats at each destination. At PSG, he'd have to manage egos and superstars, the likes of which he hasn't yet dealt with. It doesn't mean he can't do it, just that he hasn't been tested. What's more, we don't know yet if the club will face a financial fair play sanction and, if so, its severity. Arsenal would make a lot of sense, if not for the fact that they recently hired Sven Mislintat as head of recruitment. He was chief scout at Borussia Dortmund when Tuchel was there and revealed last year that the two clashed over signing players, to the point that Tuchel banned Mislintat from the training ground. (They apparently disagreed over the signing of Oliver Torres, who is now at Porto and has struggled with injuries.) As such, reuniting those two would certainly be thinking outside the box.
Chelsea don't have a director of football, so Tuchel would be interfacing directly with Marina Granovskaia. Considering current Chelsea manager Antonio Conte's outspokenness when it comes to recruitment and transfer policy, you wonder how that would work, particularly without the buffer of an intermediate figure.
Tuchel can do great things at the right club and with the right structure around him because he's one of the few innovative, original thinkers in the game. But the facts are there in plain sight: He has been at one big club and clashed with club officials, the very same guys who hired him and, presumably, knew what he was like. That's not a great selling point.
Ibrahimovic, Sweden and the World Cup
This business with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Swedish national requires some unpacking. After Euro 2016, he announced his retirement from the international game, then Sweden qualified for the World Cup and new boss Janne Andersson repeats -- time and again -- that they've moved on.
To be fair, Ibrahimovic didn't make too many noises about a return last year, largely because he was injured for most of it, but now, fresh off signing for LA Galaxy, he says that if he feels "well and capable of giving what I can," then the door for the national side "will always be open."
"They call me every day, they ask me how am I doing, but we need to take a step at a time," he said. "If I feel well and I want to, I'll be there."
That's news to Andersson, who said: "Nothing has changed. Zlatan is very welcome to call me."
Public opinion in Sweden appears to be divided, though suggestions are that Andersson would rather stick with the folks who got them to Russia.
Saying stuff like "If I want to go, I'll go" may be vintage Ibrahimovic, but it's not likely to endear him to the national team manager. You hope Andersson will be the one making the final decision and that it will be free from undue pressure.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.