Another set of international friendlies is here, and for the teams preparing for this summer's European Championships they present a unique and final opportunity to get experimental in their preparations for the tournament. This is the last window of international matches between now and the couple of warmup games that they get before Euro 2016 kicks off in France, and if there's any potential tinkering the national team managers want to do, now is the only chance they'll have to do it.
With that in mind, we looked at a few of the national squads who will be gunning for the title of best team in Europe, and identified different areas of each team that could use addressing. Some of these things are holes that need to be addressed, some of them are just ways the teams can get even better than they currently are. Especially since most of these teams are facing other sides that will be in Euro 2016, getting the most out of the opportunity is key, and it's not an opportunity these teams can let pass by.
Germany: Get crazy with tactical shapes
Germany has perhaps the most potential to pull off something truly nutty in the Euros, thanks to a wonderfully versatile and dynamically talented squad. They have enough players in all areas of the pitch who can effectively play in multiple roles that there's no reason not to try to pull off something bizarre and fun with their shape, throwing out a combination of players that will keep opponents guessing in terms of what shape, tactics and approach to the game that Germany will be bringing. They can easily run a lineup that could be any of a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-4-3, 3-5-2 or anything in between and a few more wacky shapes besides. That's essentially impossible to gameplan against.
Even in-match, Joachim Löw has the ability to move his players around enough that it can be extremely difficult to get a handle on what Germany are doing from one minute to the next -- but it's a factor in his team that he's rarely taken advantage of. If he takes the gloves off and really lets this team loose, they could be unstoppable just for the mass confusion they can create for their opponents.
France: Focus on Dimitri Payet
Much of the focus is on France's stellar central midfield -- and it's hard to argue with that with the likes of Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi around -- but in order to let those players best act in the game, France's attack may need to rely on someone further forward. Enter Dimitri Payet, who has been one of the most lethal players in the Premier League this season with West Ham, but who hasn't had much of a consistent role in the national side during his career.
Payet has the skill set necessary to carry much of the creative load in France's attack, and utilizing him that way would give his teammates more freedom on the pitch -- allowing Antoine Griezmann to make his space-exploiting runs, giving Pogba more of a free role to get forward and punish defensive mistakes and generally taking a lot of weight off his teammates' shoulders. With Payet at the point of France's midfield instead of spreading that creative burden around, it could very well make the whole team better -- and what better time to find out just how well that can work than now, when Payet is in excellent form?
England: Find any way to be interesting
England have been many things in the Roy Hodgson years, but rarely has one of those things been "interesting." They play minor variations of the same counter-attacking system in most matches, only cutting loose with their attack against relative minnows -- and even in many of those matches, they're rather dull to watch and not always as effective as they should be.
In this international window, though, England have a squad capable of more dynamic, threatening and eye-catching football. Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana, Dele Alli and Ross Barkley give the Three Lions an incredible amount of quality options for attacking play, more than we're really used to seeing from England of late. If Hodgson can find a way to better utilize his available talent and get the kind of performance from them that fans are hoping for, England's chances of finding European Championship success could skyrocket as a result.
Spain: See what Álvaro Morata brings the squad
With Diego Costa out and Spain struggling for much in the way of quality options up top, it's interesting to see Álvaro Morata on the squad list for this international break. Injuries and preferences for other players have limited the 23-year-old's chances in the national team for much of his career, but right now Morata is the clear best choice to start up top for Spain in their matches this month.
While his successes with Juventus have been a bit mixed this season, it's hard to deny that the ex-Real Madrid front man is wonderfully talented and capable of excellent play up top. Morata has the ability to be a real difference maker for Spain, and he also brings a style of striker play that Spain doesn't have a lot of, using clever positioning and his excellent first step and footwork to create space for teammates to play him in. He's also sorely underrated as a creative presence up top, something that Vicente del Bosque will be sure to appreciate.
Italy: Get creativity out of the midfield
While Antonio Conte has generally gotten very good performances out of Italy, his side has had an unfortunate tendency to get bogged down against many of the teams they've played against. That's been due largely to a lack of quality creativity in midfield, thanks to Andrea Pirlo declining with age and Marco Verratti not always living up to his potential with the national team.
For their upcoming matches against Spain and Germany, though, neither of those players are in the squad, opening the chance for Conte to experiment with other ways to get that needed creative spark. He could roll with first-time call-up Jorginho, who plays a similar role to Pirlo and Verratti and has been in excellent form this season. He could experiment with ways to use Alessandro Florenzi or Giacomo Bonaventura or Lorenzo Insigne as wide creators. He could even do something totally different! But no matter what, he needs to do something to try to figure out this problem, because if he doesn't Italy will be in a lot of trouble come the summer.
Belgium: Find a role for Yannick Ferreira Carrasco
Carrasco has been a revelation with Atlético Madrid this season, getting plenty of playing time and making a marked impact in their attack. Because of the glut of attacking talent Belgium have, though, he hasn't gotten to play much -- but perhaps it's time for that to change.
One thing that Belgium have struggled with at times during their rise is playing with quality width. For all their strengths, Belgium don't have a reliable, impact player out wide. Even their players who start as wingers tend to spend much of the match drifting inside, making it easier for their opponents to clog up the center of the pitch in order to slow them down. A player like Carrasco gives them that needed legitimate wide presence to keep a defense honest, and would give Belgium significantly better balance and make them an even more threatening side than they are now. That's frightening to consider, considering how excellent they've been for the last 18 months.
Croatia: Discover some width
Croatia have one of the best midfields in the world, but very little in the way of quality width. The only good wide player in attack they have is Ivan Perisic, but with him all alone out there it's too easy for opponents to cheat with their defensive coverage and take him out of the game. Croatia even struggle to get their fullbacks involved, because their lack of a "proper" defensive midfielder means they can't risk getting caught too far upfield on the counter.
There's no easy or obvious solution here, but it's something that Ante Čačić needs to find one for. Until he can find a better balance for his team, Croatia's opposition will too easily be able to key on certain elements of their side and seriously cripple their ability to keep up a cogent attack. Without that width, or at least finding a way to consistently work without it, Croatia won't get as far in the European Championships as they want to.
Sweden: Finding a more functional midfield
For a long time, Sweden's midfield strategy has been to throw out Kim Källström, Sebastian Larsson, Pontus Wernbloom and someone else, and let the rest shake itself out. As you might expect, that doesn't always work out so well, especially with Källström getting on in years and other national teams figuring out that the best way to keep Zlatan Ibrahimović from beating them virtually single-handedly was to starve him of service.
Like with Croatia's woes, there's no obvious solution here. There's no up-and-coming star they can just plug in to get experience and hope for the best. A couple younger players, like Emil Forsberg or Oscar Hiljemark, show varying degrees of potential, but they're not clearly "the guy" to solve Sweden's problems. Finding some kind of improved balance and functionality instead of relying on the same ol' schtick will make Sweden a much, much more lethal side to try to face.