With the 2018 World Cup in Russia well underway, all 32 competing teams have now named their finalised squads for the tournament. FIFA’s 23-man limit for each team means that places on the plane are fiercely competitive and highly sought-after, with players looking to prove their worth through established performances in both their respective leagues and international-friendlies ahead of the biggest tournament in world sport. This competition for places means, inevitably, a large number of players miss out on the chance to represent their country in the finals of the competition, and before every tournament coaches make surprise omissions to their finalised line-ups. Nasri wasn’t taken to Brazil, nor Zanetti to South Africa, and Lampard’s exclusion from the squad heading to Korea in 2002 seemed ludicrous at the time. In each case, though, these decisions proved inconsequential, since international managers usually know what they’re talking about.
Löw’s decision to drop Leroy Sane from the final line-up was met first with largely aghast disbelief, followed shortly by a chorus of appreciation and respect for the German coach’s wisdom and credibility
This year, then, it shouldn’t be a shock to read that the following stars have been dropped from their squads, but such is the significance of these omissions that there is a serious chance these nations could be left wondering why some of the best players in the world were left behind.
Leroy Sané, of course, inspired the writing of this article. Löw’s decision to drop the Manchester City winger from the World Cup line-up was met first with largely aghast disbelief, followed shortly by a chorus of appreciation and respect for the German coach’s wisdom and credibility. Criticism for his decision has been few and far between, which speaks volumes of the esteem bestowed upon Löw as a manager. He has, after all, guided Germany to at least the semi-finals in every major international tournament since his appointment in 2006. In that regard, he is the most consistently successful manager in international football; but not taking Sané to Russia is a mistake.
Löw wants consistency in his squad, players that fit his system and play well together
When asked to explain the logic behind the omission, Löw justified his decision by speaking of the choice he had to make between Sané and Leverkusen winger Julian Brandt, opting for the latter due to his superior international experience. “If it was a 100-metre race”, he said, “it would have been a photo finish”. Sané’s absence from Germany’s Confederations Cup triumph goes some way to justifying the logic of this decision, but the 22-year old’s numbers for the season are eye-wateringly impressive. If it were literally a 100-metre race, Brandt wouldn’t stand a chance. In just 27 league starts, the PFA Young Player of the Year netted 10 goals and provided a torrent of 15 assists. The latter figure makes him, statistically, the second-best creator in Europe’s top five leagues. Unfortunately for him, those numbers represent the fruits of an overtly-attacking Guardiola style of football – which couldn’t be further from the German system. In Löw’s team, Sané is a square bolt in a round nut. Germany play with an almost-mechanical efficiency, an emphasis on possession and passing that opts for consistency over selfish flair – but even the most expertly-crafted Mercedes will eventually break down. Nobody expected Sané to start – he shouldn’t – but he offers the team an injection of speed and creativity unlike anyone else in the squad. He has the capacity for individual brilliance, which makes him a player who can single-handedly change a game. When Löw’s system comes under pressure from the pace and skill of the other heavy-hitters, like Brazil or France, who can he call upon to change things up? Opting for Brandt might make sense as a player who fits a system, but if a coach is forced to make a substitution it is usually for one of two reasons; to get fresh legs on the pitch or to change the dynamic of the game. Having formulaic substitutions at a World Cup makes the latter impossible.
Löw’s judgement, and the hitherto success of the selfless German football machine, is difficult to question, but beating Brazil 7-1 won’t happen again. A team of their ability can look to players like Neymar or Coutinho to snatch a goal through a moment of selfish football, France have Mbappé and Dembélé who can do the same in the eleventh hour, but in the event that Germany are trailing it is difficult to choose a player in their squad who can have the same individual impact. Sané could have been this option, without needing the jeopardise the German style of play – he provides an additional layer to an already formidable team. Löw wants consistency in his squad, players that fit his system and play well together – a tactic that has proven unquestionably successful for Germany – but I fear such dependence on a single method of football could be their undoing.
Nainggolan’s issues with discipline may well affect the cohesion of the squad, but such is the presence of his character on the pitch that his midfield compatriots seem unworthy replacements
The situation concerning Radja Nainggolan is somewhat different. His omission from the Belgium World Cup line-up is not a mistake as such, but his absence will almost certainly prove costly to a side lacking in cohesion. I say this because the 30-year old Roma midfielder has been known for his trouble-making habits. Public smoking, drinking and vocal disagreements with managers has created his ‘bad boy’ image, though the player himself sought to dispel this reputation in an interview with Gazzetta in which he denied he was “a rebel” and was committed “120 percent” to any manager who picked him. His absence from the Belgium squad is paradoxical in this way. Bad behaviour and poor managerial relations would negatively impact the unity of the team, but Nainggolan is irreplaceable as an all-round central midfielder. His issues with discipline may well affect the cohesion of the squad, but such is the presence of his character on the pitch that his midfield compatriots seem unworthy replacements. Both Witsel and Fellaini lack his aggression and ability on the ball, and Tielemans, for all his talent, is slender and inexperienced. Moussa Dembélé perhaps comes closest, but Nainggolan’s gift for striking a ball from distance makes him versatile in both attack and defence, look no further than his goals against Liverpool and Wales as evidence of his shooting ability. In the same way Diego Costa is a bully that you want on your side, Nainggolan is an intimidating presence in the centre of the pitch, one who would allow De Bruyne and Hazard the space to operate ahead of him. The current Belgium side have struggled in recent tournaments due to their inability to work the ball together as a team under the guidance of Martínez and Henry. However, they have a real chance at the title at the World Cup in Russia. If they disappoint yet again, it is likely that their Achilles heel will be a permeable defensive line rather than an inability to score goals, an issue that Nainggolan’s inclusion would have helped to rectify a great deal.
Jorge Sampaoli’s decision to leave Mauro Icardi out of Argentina’s World Cup squad does not seem ill-advised. It is common knowledge that La Albiceleste is an incredibly unbalanced team; Messi, Agüero and Dybala form an attack that is undoubtedly one of the best in world football, with Otamendi and Mascherano the only notable players in a lacklustre defence. Icardi’s 29 Serie A goals, the joint-best in the league, was not enough to warrant him a spot on the plane to Russia. His compatriots Dybala and Higuaín sit 3rd and 6th respectively on the Serie A scorers table, but the former’s presence in the squad is out of necessity rather than experience – Dybala could be the key to the Argentine midfield. Higuaín, however, does not serve any role of apparent significance in the team. Sampaoli should opt to start the more consistent Agüero over the Juventus striker, who has a reputation for missing big chances for both club and country, and his next option should be Icardi. Granted, Higuaín has the experience of playing, and scoring, in two World Cups, but Icardi offers consistency and confidence beyond his years. He is a tactically intelligent striker, who thrives in the box and can score with both feet from just a few touches, Argentina could use a reliable finisher to convert the chances that their wide players will create in abundance. Flanked by veterans Messi and Di María, and playing second to Agüero, all of whom are 30 years old, the experience and maturity would exist around Icardi. Argentina will have the third-oldest line-up in the tournament and can afford to take a chance on youth, sticking to what has failed before is only doomed to fail again. Like Sané, the 25-year old has just had the season of his career so far, and it is difficult to know what more he could’ve done to warrant a place in the national team. Icardi’s omission, though logical when observing the striking talent already in the team, may come back to haunt Sampaoli when Argentina are reliant on Higuaín’s composure in the latter stages.
Sané, Nainggolan and Icardi will all wish they were in Russia when their teams inevitably progress to the knockout rounds of the tournament, and their managers may rue their decisions to leave such talent behind. Ironically enough, Germany and Belgium are my favourites to win the tournament, but their chances are certainly hindered by the significant omissions made by their coaches. As for Argentina, they have little to lose by bringing Icardi along for the experience, and it’s a shame that he may only play in one such tournament in his career.