Here Come Spain... Almost

It's a World Cup year. But it's not a World Cup year yet. And one of the consequences of FIFA moving the World Cup to the winter is that this moment in the season, this little cluster of post-season internationals, seems both very important and yet not.
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Europe has the Nations League, which is supposed to be important in its own right. And yet the proximity of the World Cup means these are preparatory games in all but name. It's impossible to watch anything that's happening now and not think about what it will all mean for the big competition. It's just that all those thoughts then come with the little caveat: "... in six months."
For the teams themselves, this is mostly an advantage. Spain played Portugal last night - in fact, Spain more or less outplayed Portugal, in a tired, end of season sort of a way. And yet the game finished 1-1. If the World Cup were mere days away, we'd be fretting about Spain's profligacy and forecasting bleak things for the knockout stages. As it is, they've got another six months to work on the eternal riddle of Álvaro Morata.
On the other hand, there has to be a good chance that Gavi is the most energetic footballer in the world right now. We'd suggest Luis Enrique bundle him up in bubble wrap for the next six months, but he'd only kick and chew his way out. When you look up "counter attack" in the dictionary, you don't get a picture of the goal he instigated last night. That's not how the dictionary works. But that, you have to say, is the dictionary's loss.
The next six months are going to be all about the World Cup, even though for most of the world that includes a full half-season of club competition. Transfer decisions will be made with just half a season in mind; surgery will be postponed or brought forward; twinges will be nurtured; hamstrings will be protected. It's June by the actual calendar. But it's also January, by the rhythms of the World Cup cycle. The games feel strange; the games are going to feel stranger.
Still, there has to be a decent chance that the next six months are all about Gavi. Look at that goal again: first a disgusting level of pace for June, then a disgusting level of precision for a 17-year-old. Spain aren't a perfect side by any reckoning, but World Cups tend to go to the most effectively energetic of the imperfect teams. Having Gavi in the middle of the park seems a good step towards that goal.


On Wednesday, with great solemnity and sorrow, Manchester United announced the departure of Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard. Yesterday, it was the turn of Juan Mata and Edinson Cavani to say their tearful goodbyes. By the end of today we'll be blinking back tears as Fred the Red sets off for new adventures beyond the sunset.
It's starting to feel a bit like A Thing. Maybe it's just the coincidence of all these big contracts expiring at the same time; maybe there's sweet content to be mined across the socials. Maybe they're trying to piggyback the orgy of nostalgia around the Jubilee; maybe they're just doing the decent thing by departing employees. Still, we suspect this festival of grateful regret is going to prove very useful for Erik ten Hag and for United's new backroom regime.
First, it emphasises the break in continuity. That was then: the time of Pogba, Cavani, Mata, Matić. Big names on big contracts, big promises left half-fulfilled. And this is now. We don't actually know what "now" means, since the future remains entirely theoretical. But there's a line being drawn between whatever this is, and whatever the hell that was.
And second, it may just serve to dampen expectations a little. Even the harshest critic has to make allowances for turnover. David Moyes was damned by the fact that we'd all seen that same team, nearly that same precise squad, stroll to the title just the season before. By contrast, the only player left from the team that started the 2017 Europa League final - United's last trophy - is Marcus Rashford.
(Fun fact: of that starting XI, five of them won trophies elsewhere this season: Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan with Roma, Daley Blind with Ajax, Matteo Darmian with Inter and Ander Herrera with PSG. Leaving Manchester United can be a very good career move.)
Ten Hag, Richard Murtough, all the rest of them: they will need more than time and patience. They will need to be very, very, very good at their jobs, and they will need luck, and all the rest. But time and patience is a good place to start, and if making a big noise around all these departures earns them a little of both, well, what a happy coincidence.

Fun Time Toni

Here at the Warm-Up, we've always wondered why more footballers don't take advantage of their celebrity, and of the incredibly twitchy nature of transfer coverage, to play pranks. To mess about. To have a little harmless fun.
Take Antonio Rüdiger. We've known for months that he was joining Real Madrid, and yesterday it was finally confirmed. Makes sense for all concerned, and Thibaut Courtois is very happy about it. Apart from anything else, this should mean a little less work for everybody's favourite lanky Belgian.
But we know Rüdiger likes to keep himself amused on the pitch. Why not have a little fun off it as well? Hit 'like' on a couple of Kylian Mbappé's Instagram posts, or get papped on holiday in Barcelona. Nothing sinister, certainly nothing legally binding. But imagine having the power to send tens of millions of people slightly loopy just by saying "I've always wanted to go to Oktoberfest" ... and then imagine not using that power.
People talk about the sacrifices that elite athletes make. We always thought that meant things like diet, partying, and all the other stuff that doesn't line up with running laps of the rec on Christmas day. But maybe this is part of the same elite mindset: the ability to look at the big red button marked "LOL", and then not press it. To gain so much, one must lose so much.


As noted, after eight years of confusing service, Juan Mata is leaving Manchester United. What better time, then, to look back at the highlights of his time at Chelsea: the impish, scurrying excellence that persuaded United to buy him, and to then parade him as a transfer coup, only to then never quite work out what to do with him. Lovely player, though, and lovely man.


Over to the Guardian today, where John Duerden has been taking a look at the state of football in China. Turns out that while Covid has been disruptive everywhere, a zero-Covid policy does very strange things to a football calendar.
"July’s East Asian Championships against regional rivals Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong was switched to Japan in April. Soon after, the 2022 Asian Games, the continent’s Olympics which offer football gold for under-23 teams, was postponed. In football terms, the most damaging development took place last month as China officially gave up the 2023 Asian Cup."
But that's not all! The money's dried up, players are going unpaid, and the long-standing ambition to host the men's World Cup? "After recent events, that is looking a little less certain."


More Nations League? Oh go on then. Belgium vs. the Netherlands is the glamour tie of the evening, but there's Croatia vs. Ralf Rangnick's Austria and France vs. Christian Eriksen's Denmark as well.
Have a wonderful weekend. Mike Hincks will be here on Monday with news of Wales vs. Ukraine and other less important things.
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