Euro’s soccer stars are changing the game

In Soccer’s Era of Complexity, the Euros’ Superstars Make It Simple

As the tournament heads into the knockout rounds, individual talent is still what makes a favorite

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal will face Belgium in the round of 16.PHOTO: HUGO DELGADO/SHUTTERSTOCK

By Joshua RobinsonUpdated June 25, 2021 7:26 am ET

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LONDON—England fans had sat through two dour performances at the European Championship before manager Gareth Southgate put some fun into the team. All he did was pick a 19-year-old livewire named Bukayo Saka.

In his first start at a major tournament, Saka launched the move that led to the single goal of England’s crucial victory against the Czech Republic simply by doing what he does best: picking up the ball in his own half and trusting his instinct to attack. He left a defender in his dust and immediately opened up the field for his teammates to pour forward. It wasn’t a sophisticated play drawn up by Southgate—just one moment of unpredictability that electrifies a team.

“I said at the start that different players will have the spotlight on them in different games,” Southgate said. “And Bukayo, I can’t speak highly enough of him. He earned that chance tonight and he’s grabbed it. He was fabulous.”

Saka’s explosion was a timely reminder that in soccer’s era of complex systems and 26-man squads, major tournaments turn on stellar performances by individual players. And as the remaining 16 teams at the Euros head into the knockout rounds on Saturday, the favorites remain the teams carrying the most one-man wrecking crews. 

Take Belgium. Not only does the team have the Italian league’s top scorer, Romelu Lukaku, up front — it also has midfielder Kevin De Bruyne to tee him up. De Bruyne had arrived at the Euros with an injury and waited until halftime of Belgium’s second game to make his first appearance. It took all of nine minutes for him to deliver a scintillating assist. He is now averaging one assist every 67 minutes.

On Sunday, De Bruyne and Belgium will face perhaps the one team in Europe more reliant on individual virtuosity: defending champion Portugal and you know who, Cristiano Ronaldo.

“It’s great to have Ronaldo on our side,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “We’re very proud to have him, but Cristiano alone cannot win a match.”

That won’t stop Ronaldo from trying. He already has five goals in three matches, even if three have come from the penalty spot. And without the menace created by his very presence, it’s clear that Portugal wouldn’t have snuck into the final qualification spot from Group F.

There was a time when tournaments like the World Cup and the Euros dictated the newest trends in soccer and they would trickle down to the club game. A daring national team would try something, like Argentina deploying wing backs at the 1986 World Cup, and pretty soon, the tactic would show up all over the club game.

But as money and talent concentrated in Europe’s top five leagues and the Champions League, soccer’s center of gravity shifted. The most revolutionary work is now being with star-studded club teams that run deeper than even World Cup-winning sides — and often boast smarter managers.

Except that work takes time. Coaches like Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel or former Inter manager Antonio Conte are relentless taskmasters for whom daily training sessions are like piano lessons — full of repetition, memorization, and stern instructions to do it again, only better. Without that constant contact, their up-tempo styles would be impossible. 

“You will do this, and we will repeat it over and over again, for months and months, until you get it right,” Cesc Fabregas, a two-time European champion with Spain, said of working under modern club managers. “You can play with your eyes closed. The ball comes to you and you know what you have to do, because your teammate will be exactly at the right time at the right place.”

National teams, meanwhile, have to cram tournament prep into a matter of weeks. Players who participated in the Champions League final, with Chelsea and Manchester City, weren’t free from their club commitments until May 30. 

England’s Bukayo Saka has provided a spark in the lineup.PHOTO: NICK POTTS/ZUMA PRESS

So for coaches like Southgate, there is always a tension between picking the most balanced team available and the individuals with the most upside. In England’s case, that debate has centered on Jack Grealish. Seen as perhaps one playmaker too many, Grealish had to wait until the third match for his first start of the Euros. He didn’t disappoint as he delivered the game’s lone assist.

“I would pick Grealish first,” former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said. “Football has become too rigid. He’s the one who is a little bit different, who gives you unpredictability.”

Not all of the individuals tearing up the Euros have to have the long, sparkling résumés of a Ronaldo. Saka’s star turn at Wembley came in his sixth game for England. And he still had the swagger to dribble the ball forward 34% further against the Czech Republic than he does in an average game for his club, Arsenal. 

Germany, meanwhile, discovered the fiery potential of wingback Robin Gosens against Portugal in the ninth international match of his career. The late-blooming 26-year-old, who plays for Atalanta in Italy, needed 60 minutes to rack up a goal, an assist, and the man of the match award in the 4-2 victory.

“I have had eight caps for my country, so I don’t think I can talk about much experience,” Gosens said afterward. “I bring my enthusiasm, my emotions.”

Germany discovered the fiery potential of wingback Robin Gosens against Portugal.PHOTO: VON DER LAAGE,GLADYS CHAI/ZUMA PRESS

Of the pedigree teams in the round of 16, only Italy is remarkable for its relatively unremarkable roster. Manager Roberto Mancini reacted to the lack of world-class talent available to him by building the most efficient unit of the group stage and spreading the attacking responsibilities. The six goals scored by Italians so far have come from four different players. 

But if the Azzurri have overperformed so far, one team has given the impression that its stable of individual game-changers has yet to get started. World champion France, the most stacked squad at the tournament, has just one player, Karim Benzema, with more than one goal. Manager Didier Deschamps, however, reminded his team ahead of Monday’s match against Switzerland that group stages at major tournaments are exclusively about survival.

“Maybe other teams gave a better impression than France in the group stage,” he added. “Now it is a new competition that starts.”

Write to Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com

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