There is no doubt that at an international level, world class players are depended on to perform at their best and one of the revelations during this year’s European Championships has been the extent to which certain squads rely upon their star men. All too often we have seen countries rely on key players to carry their teams to victory with the weight of a nation on their shoulders and when things do not quite go their way, it is those players that receive all the flack. Be it a help or a hindrance on them, it has also become a common dilemma for their managers to decide whether to let them do their own thing on the pitch, or to conform to a style of play that complements the team as a whole.
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Since England’s devastatingly painful exit against Italy last Sunday, Roy Hodgson said that the success of all teams depended greatly on whether their best players performed. Analysts and fans alike have been quick to criticise Hodgson’s well-drilled side, saying that its defensive organisation limited attacking options when they were needed the most. That said, the coherence and understanding between Terry and Lescott, minus a couple of lapses in concentration, was impressive throughout and the consistent discipline shown in the middle of the park was refreshing to see. However, for a side that boasts players like Wayne Rooney who are capable of wonderful things, England failed to really shine on the big stage.
Yet English fans wouldn’t be English fans unless they had someone to burden with all the pressure. After coming onto the international scene as an 18-year-old in Euro 2004, Rooney began his England career with great promise. Yet luck has not been on his side whilst wearing the 3 Lions shirt as a string of injuries and suspensions have prevented him from performing at his best at football’s highest level. His return was highly anticipated due to his two-game suspension at the start of the tournament, but he looked unfit, unprepared and uninterested. Despite scoring a goal and Hodgson assuring his readiness to play, he didn’t really turn up. Therefore it was newly appointed full-time captain, Steven Gerrard who took on the responsibility of taking the reins as England’s talisman to which he did with great effect. His endless running and obvious passion had fans all over the country praising their new skipper and his contribution to three of their five goals did not go unnoticed.
But the Italy game seemed one step too far for him and his teammates, as they were outclassed for the major part of 120 minutes of open play and crashed out yet again on penalties; a sight all too familiar for every England supporter. The point I make here is that although England were eliminated, murmurs in pubs all over the country were that had we ridden our luck successfully against Italy, Gerrard was the man to take us to the final. Together with David Silva of Spain with the most assists so far in Euro 2012, the 32-year-old was looking a lot fitter than in any of his 18 appearances for Liverpool last season and being handed the captain’s armband on a permanent basis seemed to rejuvenate him. He was by far England’s best player throughout the 4 matches and the problems he usually encounters alongside Frank Lampard were avoided, with the Chelsea man having to pull out through injury. Seen as a blessing in disguise for most, it gave Gerrard the license to attack more and deliver some of his trademark passes.
With the exception of Joe Hart, who actually finished the Italy game with England’s most successful pass rate, it was a shame that Gerrard was the only other Englishman who really looked up to the test of Europe’s biggest international tournament. A tournament in which many of the continent’s footballing giants also have the tendency to fall back on their top players to pull their side out of the doldrums. With last night’s semi-final as a prime example there are none more obvious than the Portuguese. With a dreary start to the competition against Germany and Denmark, spectators began to question Ronaldo’s ability to impress at international level and it wasn’t until their final group game against Holland that he found his scoring boots. Converting two goals he single handedly took Portugal through to the quarter finals but although this was true, it became clear that his individual prowess represented a serious flaw in Portugal’s tactical set-up.
Preferring to play on the left and cut in on his favoured right foot, the Real Madrid speedster rarely tracks back to help his full-back. Paulo Bento allowed him to play in a reasonably free role which is justifiable because on a good day, he will tear teams apart. But it soon became obvious that the right wing was an area for teams to exploit and in fact, every goal that Portugal conceded in Euro 2012 came from Ronaldo’s wing. The three crosses that led to Mario Gomez and Nicklas Bendtner’s goals for Germany and Denmark respectively came from the right as did the lead up to Rafael van der Vaart’s curling effort against Holland. He was also off colour against Spain in last night’s semi final and didn’t even feature in the penalty shootout that saw his side eliminated from the tournament.
But it is not just Portugal who rest their hopes on one man. As we saw in the quarter final clash between England and Italy, Juventus veteran Andrea Pirlo ran the show and completed more passes than the whole of England’s midfield combined. Similarly, Croatia’s Luka Modric, who is at the top of this summer’s transfer wish list, had to deal with the immense pressures of taking his nation forward. The disappointing Dutch side also had Wesley Sneijder who although having an injury plagued season with Inter Milan, showed some sparks of greatness but his input was not sufficient enough to motivate Bert van Marwijk’s unimpressive side.
So the debate continues. With Germany being one of the most impressive sides to grace this year’s tournament but not reaching the final, it will be decided between Italy and Spain whether an inspirational character is really what is needed to succeed. Italy will be wanting talismanic Andrea Pirlo to finish what has been an impeccable job for his country and with Spain having an emphasis on total football and playing to a system that compliments the team, we will find out which mentality triumphs when the victors leave Ukraine with the coveted trophy
I suppose it depends not only on how good your star player is but also how capable his teammates are in dealing with his deficiencies. If he is able to play in his natural position and contribute in areas he may not want to and if he is able to respond positively to being constrained to a tight formation when needed, then it is a recipe for success. For Ronaldo, I say let him strut his stuff where he wants, because if he’s sulking on the wing he’s no use to anyone.
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