Spain impress collectively; Brazil and Argentina need Neymar and Messi
Assessing the contenders to win the World Cup results in two obvious conclusions.
The first is negative: There are fewer genuine contenders than in 2010 or 2014. This is partly the consequence of some high-profile absences; Netherlands and Italy are usually among either the favourites or the best-placed outsiders, while Chile were many people's dark horses ahead of the previous two editions. When combined with a sense that the likes of Colombia, Uruguay and Portugal are probably weaker than four years ago, plus questions over the ability of England and Belgium's head coaches, there are perhaps only five countries who look well-placed to win this competition.
The second is positive: The quality of those favourites appears considerably stronger than prior to 2010 and 2014, when there was a dearth of genuinely top-class teams. Germany, Brazil, France, Spain and Argentina all have obvious strengths. More pertinently, compared to 2014 when every side appeared flawed in some way, weaknesses are often more difficult to identify.
Here's an assessment of the favourites' performances in friendlies during the international break.
Two high-quality performances -- first in a creditable 1-1 draw at Germany and then a 6-1 thrashing of Argentina -- underlined Spain's strength in depth, their quality of attacking options and their continued commitment to exciting, pass-and-move football.
While we've become accustomed to tiki-taka under Spain over the last decade, this side feels more like the attack-minded Euro 2008 winners rather than Vicente Del Bosque's more conservative, patient outfit. Julen Lopetegui is demanding quicker passes into attack and more late runs from midfield, while continuing to play with as many as five playmakers behind a centre-forward. Andres Iniesta played a beautiful assist for Rodrigo's goal against Germany, while Isco grabbed a hat trick against Argentina. David Silva and Thiago Alcantara also looked impressive.
The major question mark is who plays upfront. Having often turned to a false nine in previous competitions, Spain are likely to play a genuine centre-forward in Russia. With Rodrigo and Diego Costa opening the scoring against Germany and Argentina respectively, this week hasn't been decisive in that respect. Iago Aspas looked less certain, while Alvaro Morata wasn't even in the squad.
What was most impressive about Spain's performances, however, was their pressing. For a good Costa chance in the second half against Germany, then his goal against Argentina and Isco's first in the same game, Spain pressed quickly and decisively to turn over possession and immediately create a chance. They appear more dynamic and only a weakness at set pieces appears a major issue; they looked nervous against Germany in this respect, then conceded to a Nicolas Otamendi header against Argentina. But overall, Spain appear to be the best side around.
For the reigning world champions, it was an international break of two halves. The 1-1 draw against Spain felt like a genuine festival of football, a match that was notable for its high-tempo nature -- somewhat rare in the international game -- as much as the actual result.
Germany's performance in the 1-0 defeat to Brazil, however, was extremely poor. With Joachim Low making several changes, it can probably written off as a relatively irrelevant showing, but a first defeat in 23 matches shouldn't be overlooked.
In truth, it's difficult to work out precisely what Germany will have learned this week, which isn't entirely out of keeping with the side's friendly performances going into the World Cup four years ago. There remains a question mark upfront: Leipzig's Timo Werner is an extraordinarily quick centre-forward, who is brilliant at racing in behind the opposition defence and he looked very lively against Spain. However, few -- if any -- of Germany's opponents in Russia will play an advanced defensive line.
The Plan B was Mario Gomez, who started against Brazil before being replaced by Sandro Wagner. With those two, Germany depend too much upon hopeful crossing towards two immobile thirtysomethings, which hardly get the best from their talented playmakers.
This remains a similar side to that which triumphed four years ago, with great quality in midfield but question marks at full-back and upfront. Low's tactics will be designed to hide those weaknesses once again.
The problem with assessing Brazil's performances this week is obvious: They were without Neymar, around whom they will base their World Cup tactics. In a way, however, his absence was positive. He had started every game for the two years heading into the 2014 World Cup semifinal and when he was ruled out through injury, Brazil collapsed both tactically and psychologically. Learning to play without the PSG man was probably very useful.
That said, Brazil require his invention, dribbling and movement between the lines. Without him, this is a relatively straightforward, simple side: Willian and Paulinho are up-and-down players, the former assisting the latter for a headed goal against Russia. Overall, Brazil appeared rather too dependent upon crosses. Philippe Coutinho, for all his talent, has a habit of drifting around on the periphery rather than influencing games like Neymar.
Brazil are defensively solid, with holding midfielders Casemiro and Fernandinho far superior to the options at the last two World Cups. Dani Alves and Marcelo remain the best full-back pairing around, too. Tite's job is finding the right balance between defence and attack; it feels like Brazil will end up being broadly functional and then depending upon Neymar's magic.
It's arguable that Argentina go into the World Cup boasting both the best player and the best manager in the competition. The problem last week, though, was that Lionel Messi missed the 2-0 win over Italy and the 6-1 defeat in Spain, while manager Jorge Sampaoli had previously said he didn't really want to play either game and would have preferred a simple training camp.
It's clear Argentina don't have a Messi replacement. Giovani Lo Celso and newcomer Maxi Meza offered some flashes of inspiration, while Ever Banega pushed forward from deep to score against Italy. But these represent considerable drops in quality and, while that's inevitable when talking about Messi, Sampaoli also omitted Paulo Dybala and Javier Pastore, alternative No. 10s, from his squad.
Messi is essentially playing his old Argentina role with Barcelona -- the classic No. 10 in a 4-4-1-1 -- and will therefore be well prepared for his task in Russia. But the real question mark is about Sampaoli. An excellent coach in the Marcelo Bielsa mould of heavy pressing and attacking football, it's nevertheless questionable whether he's capable of shaping this Argentina side in his image. From the way Spain repeatedly breached his side's defensive line, you sense he might be better with a more cautious approach, but that's simply not how Sampaoli's thinks.
Among this quintet, France were unique in not playing any of the other major contenders, instead facing Colombia and Russia. The first game was an embarrassment as France went 2-0 up but then collapsed alarmingly to lose 3-2, before they rebounded with a 3-1 win vs. the World Cup hosts.
France have their best generation of talent since they won the World Cup and European Championship in 1998 and 2000 respectively, but questions remain about their preferred attacking structure. Against Colombia, it was almost 4-2-4: Olivier Giroud started upfront with Antoine Griezmann just behind, with Kylian Mbappe and Thomas Lemar wide. Giroud opened the scoring and Lemar rounded off a fine team move to net the second, but France appeared vulnerable defensively and were opened up far too readily.
Against Russia, Didier Deschamps tried something different entirely by going for an incredibly quick front three. Ousmane Dembele and Anthony Martial started either side of Mbappe, who thrived in his centre-forward role, opening and closing the scoring with two goals from Thierry Henry-esque inside-left positions, either side of a fine Paul Pogba free kick.
But we remain no closer to working out precisely what France will do when they return to Russia this summer. Overloaded with attacking options, Deschamps has some tough decisions.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.