International football was for a long time the totem around which long-standing conclusions on footballers were made. This was mostly because it was the only stage that allowed players from around the globe to face each other.
That’s not been the case over the last 20 years. International tournaments are still fantastic spectacles. There’s also the odd team that finds some tactical cohesion but even the best ones like the Italy side that just won the Euros can’t really be compared to the average Premier League side.
There are; however, long-term implications on the careers of players because of the hullabaloo that surrounds any failure or success in these tournaments. We can also learn a bit about the conditions that help players excel or falter in these tournaments and see if those conditions have any chance of being mimicked in club football.
David De Gea: Interesting way to start the round-up. David De Gea didn’t play a single minute during Spain’s fantastic campaign and it was warranted for a few reasons. David De Gea’s never really turned up for his national side even during his peak years at United.
He also just came off of a tormenting penalty shoot-out loss in the Europa League finals. He needed to get out of the spotlight. But that’s not all. De Gea has a lot of stylistic shortcomings for the type of football Spain were playing and that’s been the case for his club side as well in the last couple of years. De Gea’s made some improvements but it’s starting to look like United are moving further away from the De Gea archetype with each passing day.
It’ll be fascinating to see if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s thinking aligns with Luis Enrique.
Luke Shaw: One of the players of the tournament, Shaw took his outstanding form from last season to the Euros. Tactically, the most interesting thing of note was his use as a wing-back on a few occasions, . Whenever United have opted to play a system involving wing backs, Shaw’s mostly been part of the center-back trio because of his carrying ability.
His improvement in the final third last season has definitely made a case for United maybe experimenting with him as the wing-back if the need arises. Other than that, Luke Shaw’s rise was one of the stories of the tournament. His teammates and coaching staff have always believed in him but one can’t underestimate what this’ll do for the left back’s confidence.
He comes out of this tournament as arguably the best left-back in the world and it’s been a while since United have had a player who can say that about themselves.
Diogo Dalot: Dalot joined the side after João Cancelo suffered an injury. Dalot came on as a sub against France before starting against Belgium. He was unsurprisingly conservative because of the demands from his manager, Fernando Santos.
With Raphaël Guerreiro getting a lot of freedom to bomb on the left, Dalot had more of a sweeping job on the right. The performance sort of summed up Diago Dalot’s short career. It’s not entirely clear what he excels at and if his future lies at Old Trafford.
Harry Maguire: The Manchester United captain missed the first two games due to an injury he picked up towards the end of last season but was still named in the UEFA Team of the tournament. Maguire was a rumbling juggernaut during the tournament and there’s a case to be made that his performances in this tournament eclipsed his highly impressive 2018 World Cup campaign.
Like Shaw, the United captain will come out of this tournament with some newfound respect. His thunderous penalty in the shootout was the type you’d play on loop.
Victor Lindelof: Lindelof’s Sweden were arguably the most conservative side in the group stages before getting a little expansive after the introduction of Dejan Kulusevski. The Swede also won two MOTM awards.
Lindelof’s always been a reliable center-back with an aerial presence alongside him. He’s also suited to a side that plays a mid or low-block as has been evident at United and his national side. There’s not much else to say about Victor Lindelof. It looks like United will be getting another center-back, with Lindelof as a reliable backup.
Paul Pogba: Paul Pogba’s always been a tactical conundrum at United. Less so at Juventus and for the French national side. Paul Pogba was far and away the best player in the tournament prior to France’s surprise exit. His performances for France are also a great case study for why performances on the international stage can’t be imitated at club level.
The France system was a real throwback to the ‘90s era where every player in the midfield line was playing box-to-box. Kante, Rabiot, and Pogba were all allowed to pick the ball up from deep, drive through midfield, or make a difference in the final third.
Under Solskjaer, Pogba’s been used as a deeper midfielder at times but also as a left midfielder/winger. That’s unlikely to change in the coming season. The French camp was also a little stormy this time around, which puts to bed the theory that Paul Pogba can only perform in a calm environment. That’s the case for every player.
Fred: Fred was unfortunate to receive an early yellow in the Copa America final before getting subbed off at half-time. It wasn’t the first time that Fred had a controversial yellow, which sums up why his detractors will never be completely sold on him.
It shouldn't take from the fact that he was a consistent presence for Brazil. Often dropping deep to form a back 3, Fred would allow Renan Lodi to bomb forward while also cleaning up in midfield to allow Neymar to wave his magic wand.
At United, he’s not strictly asked to do this since Shaw and Fred take turns and that’s probably for the best. He was also used alongside one of Casemiro and Fabinho, which brings up the need to address the holding midfielder cavity in this United side.
Scott McTominay: Scott McTominay’s use as right-sided center-back in a back three for Scotland has been well documented. There’s a strong case to be made that this role gets the best out of him since he’s always facing up and not expected to have the 360 vision that’s required from a midfield player.
The issue for Scotland was that the final third was their weakest area and they missed out on McTominay’s battering ram-styled runs to break past defensive blocks. At United, he’ll never really be required to do this since they’re stacked in the forward areas. The campaign showcased his versatility and limitations for a club like United.
Marcus Rashford: It felt like Marcus Rashford will, unfortunately, be remembered for his penalty miss in the final and it’s not just because of how big that moment was but also because he did not really get a lot of minutes during the tournament.
We were then reminded a few days later that our academy graduate, perhaps the one we’re most proud of, has long transcended the club and the sport. That doesn’t mean the hurt will fade away.
Marcus explained everything himself in a heartfelt note. He’ll also be getting surgery and that’s for the best. Having started his career so young, the last thing he needs is to play through injury. United will definitely miss him but he should ideally return just in time for some crunch games in the league that align with United’s Champions League campaign.
Jadon Sancho: It’s safe to say that most Manchester United fans had their heart sink a little when Jadon Sancho missed his penalty right after Marcus Rashford’s miss. Sancho did get one proper outing in a 4-0 win over Ukraine unlike Rashford, which followed his announcement as a United player.
Sancho spent most of his minutes on the right flank, which is probably where he’ll start for United. There might be some similarities because Kyle Walker isn’t the sort of dynamic full-back he once was — more of a defensive sweeper now. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a far more aggressive defensive full-back and it’ll be interesting to see if they can form a partnership. Sancho’s more of a roamer who likes to get a lot of touches and link up with players and that was evident in the game against Ukraine.
Moving into new surroundings should hopefully help Sancho palliate the disappointment of the final.
Daniel James: James was quite impressive in the group stages. He was also on set-pieces, which definitely would’ve come as a surprise to a lot of United fans. James has always been used on his preferred left side for Wales and it wasn’t a surprise that he looked better for it.
He’s unlikely to ever nail down a starting spot at United but there’s maybe reason to consider putting him for sale if he feels the need to play more regularly. If not, he’s a reliable backup who’s shown great improvement since signing for the Reds by constantly adding parts to his game. United don’t really need him for set-pieces but it shows that he’s never one to shirk responsibility.
Bruno Fernandes: United’s player of the year and talisman for a season and a half had a mixed bag. He was impressive in his side’s first game before having a bit of a nightmare against Germany — that could’ve been said about the Portugal team on the night.
The Germany game was an analogue to the Europa League final, where he played unusually high — almost like a second striker and looked worse for it. Best not to repeat that for a player who looks at his best when he’s heavily involved.
He was then dropped for two games but came on as a sub in the round of 16 tie against Belgium and had a great impact, nearly helping lead a comeback with some perfect crosses from open play and set-pieces.
Fernandes has clocked a lot of minutes at United and any break was welcome. With United likely to have a busy transfer window, Fernandes will probably have to get used to similar breaks for his club, as was the case for his national side.
Edinson Cavani: Cavani and Uruguay didn’t venture as far in the Copa America as they would have liked, but Manchester United’s seasoned striker was able to bag a handful of goals. The reliance on Cavani and Luis Suarez has meant that Uruguay’s attack has lost a step along with the strike pair, but as both have demonstrated for their respective new clubs they are each still capable of coming up with the goods. It will be good for Cavani to have continued goal scoring form going into the new season, and hopefully he’s returning to a fully healthy strikers room with Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial both taking time to recover from injuries. Solskjaer has a lot of attacking options to explore to start the season, and Cavani’s experience and ability in front of goal will certainly be called upon.