Euro 2024 talking points: Ronaldo's role, best player, and VAR issues

Euro 2024 is down to the final eight teams, but we can all enjoy another three rounds of fixtures before the winner is crowned on July 14.

So far, the tournament in Germany has been full of surprises, but what has stood out? Which players have impressed (or not), and what can we expect from a set of quarterfinals that will see France vs. Portugal and Spain vs. Germany on one side of the bracket, with Switzerland vs. England and Netherlands vs. Turkey on the other?

We asked ESPN FC’s writers at the tournament what they have made of things so far now we’re heading into the quarterfinals on Friday.

What should Portugal do with Cristiano Ronaldo? Play him? Bench him? Drop him completely?

Gab Marcotti: Play him. He hasn’t been great and, of course, he missed that penalty. But he played throughout qualifying and, for better or worse, coach Roberto Martínez has built his team with Ronaldo at centre-forward. Changing it up now, without having a chance to test alternatives wouldn’t be worth it and wouldn’t outweigh the collective trauma/controversy of dropping him. It might be a different story if Martínez had alternated him and Gonçalo Ramos in qualifying or if there was some super sub on the bench. But Ramos isn’t that.

Rob Dawson: Play him. Football is a game of fine margins and if crosses from Bernardo Silva and Vitinha were an inch more precise, we’d be talking about a Ronaldo double winning a knockout game for Portugal. What he needs to do is relax a bit, stop trying to force things and let someone else take a free kick every now and again.

Sam Marsden: Martínez has stuck to his guns so far so I don’t think he should change now. I think he should be more ruthless against France, though, if it becomes clear that Ronaldo is not working and they need more movement up front.

Mark Ogden: Bench him. His performance against Slovenia in the round of 16 was an embarrassment to a great football nation. He was indulged to the extent of taking all the free kicks, and the missed penalty, and then allowed to play out the game when he was a hindrance rather than a help. Portugal have too many top players for the team to be so structured in favour of Ronaldo. It’s ridiculous. Against Slovenia it was like watching a 10-year-old play for a team coached by his dad.

James Olley: Bench him. Portugal looked better without him at the last World Cup and they’ve hardly been fluid at this tournament when he’s played. He’s had 20 shots so far, five more than any other player at the entire tournament. The end product? No goals, one missed penalty. And that’s before we get to the unnecessary histrionics and self-indulgence. Clearly, he is still a dangerous player and could have a major impact coming off the bench. He could still have what would be a dream Euros farewell. But he needs to stop forcing it on everyone so much.

Julien Laurens: Both. And before you tell me that I am sitting on the fence, hear me out. Of course you start him; he is Ronaldo. Even at 39 years old, past his best, there is a fear in defenders before facing him. But then, he just can’t play 90 minutes or 120 minutes anymore. We saw it against Slovenia when he missed a big chance right at the end of normal time and then the penalty in extra time. He disappeared during the last 45 minutes and lacked the energy to score the chances he got. So I think you play him and take him off after an hour to bring on Diogo Jota or Ramos. Portugal will be better for it.

VAR was a big talking point coming into the tournament, have they got it right so far?

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Were Germany gifted a penalty against Denmark?

Steve Nicol and Frank Leboeuf can’t understand how Germany were awarded a penalty in their 2-0 win over Denmark.

Marcotti: I think so. There will be some issues that folks will disagree with, but that’s inevitable. Portugal’s penalty on Monday night, for example, seemed a bit harsh. That said, the fact that it came against Slovenia (and the UEFA president happens to be Slovenian) should quash doubts about grand conspiracies or referees not wanting to upset bosses. Regarding the other decisions, I’m getting a little tired with the moaning (especially from Denmark.) Maybe they’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, but reality is we have semi-automatic offside and that’s how it works. So to moan about it being a marginal decision makes no sense.

What do they want? Some guy in the VAR room drawing lines on a pitch? Or, as it was in the pre-VAR world, an assistant referee guessing? It’s a similar issue with the Joachim Andersen handball. Yes, contact was minimal (but not inexistent, as their fancy kit showed us.) Whether or not advantage was gained is entirely immaterial. If you want to base a decision on whether advantage was gained, let’s do it, but be prepared for endless conjecture and argument over what constitutes advantage.

Oh and let’s drop the “where is he supposed to put his arm/natural position” nonsense too. Andersen played in Serie A, where such handball penalties are given routinely, and that’s why he usually tucks his arm behind. On this occasion he didn’t do it, or couldn’t do it, or wasn’t athletic enough to do it. And the ball struck his arm. Stuff happens.

Laurens: It is very easy to see among all our answers who is the only ESPN writer who likes talking about VAR … Gab, this is a question just for you! I think VAR has been good so far. VAR is here, available, strengthened with semi-automatic offsides and it is here to stay. So let’s stop talking about it. And by the way, referees have been good so far, too.

Ogden: Yes, because the rules are upheld by the correct decisions that they ultimately arrive at. The issue is the rules. The Andersen handball during Denmark’s defeat against Germany was a nonsense because it was such minimal contact that no advantage was gained by touching the ball. And the offside decision for Andersen’s goal at the other end was also extremely harsh. The offside rule was designed to stop forwards gaining an unfair advantage, but that decision was so tight it would never have been given in a pre-VAR world. The rules need to change … especially the handball rule.

Olley: VAR is a binary technological function trying to conclusively rule on subjective issues. It is therefore impossible for every decision to meet with 100% approval and so all that can be asked for is that the use of VAR is quick and consistent. I’d say that has been the case at this tournament. Semi-automated offsides are a step forward. They are frustrating — and there’s a case for it not being in the spirit of the game — but technology is here to stay now and there’s no (rational) arguing with it.

Dawson: VAR doesn’t fit football but it’s functioning about as well as it can at this tournament. Semi-automated offsides help with the speed of decisions and — if we’re keeping VAR — then the Premier League will be better off when it’s introduced. As Mark says, the issue is what VAR does to the rules rather than the technology itself.

Marsden: There have been a few complaints regarding VAR and non-VAR decisions, but I feel it has not been a major issue at this tournament. The major problem is not VAR, anyway, but the inconsistency of the decision-makers and the interpretation of certain regulations — mainly handballs and offsides. I do get the argument that a toenail being offside goes against the “spirit” of why offside was originally introduced, but under the current rules and with semi-automatic offsides, it is a black-and-white call. I am open to an alternative ruling, but I don’t have the solution yet.

Who is the one player who has impressed you most so far?

Olley: Jamal Musiala. As a result of how the fixtures have fallen with travel and work commitments elsewhere, I’ve ended up watching more of Germany’s games than any other team aside from England. And Musiala impresses every time with that sense of purpose and freedom in the final third that makes him such a threat.

Marcotti: Of the guys left in the tournament, I’ll go with Nico Williams; he’s like a freaking video game. It’s so easy to forget that he only has two seasons as a starter at Athletic Club under his belt and he’s still just 21 and playing such a key role for Spain. Now, before the Lamine Yamal fans jump all over me, I realize Yamal is even younger, at 16. But Yamal is at Barça in a giant goldfish bowl and I was pretty sure he could handle the pressure; I wasn’t so sure about Nico and he’s met every challenge thus far.

Marsden: I am going to side with Gab and say Williams. I think that makes him the ESPN Player of the Tournament so far, right? In Spain’s two biggest games at the tournament — the group-stage win over Italy and the round-of-16 victory against Georgia — he was sensational. He has pace, trickery and, more importantly, has displayed an end product. Also, just look at how much fun him and Yamal are having. Musiala is a close second though.

Laurens: William Saliba — the best defender in the world right now. He was not supposed to start this tournament as Didier Deschamps was set on an Ibrahima Konaté-Dayot Upamecano pairing at centre-back, but the Arsenal defender seized his chance. He kept Marko Arnautovic, Memphis Depay, Robert Lewandowski and Romelu Lukaku all quiet and has hardly made a mistake in four matches so far. At 23, he is not even near his peak yet.

Ogden: Pepê. The guy is 41 and has been around since the days of the dinosaurs, but he is marshalling Portugal’s defence against younger, quicker opponents as though he is still 21. He is an incredible defender and while all the focus is usually on Ronaldo, Pepe just flies under the radar and takes care of business.

Dawson: Manuel Akanji. He doesn’t get enough credit for the role he plays at Manchester City and the same is true when he’s playing for Switzerland. Granit Xhaka is rightly getting a lot of plaudits, but Akanji is equally important and he’s been fantastic at this tournament.

Who is the one player who has impressed you least so far?

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Why Switzerland will give England a problem in the Euro 2024 quarters

Mark Ogden debates how Gareth Southgate will approach England’s Euro 2024 quarterfinal vs. Switzerland.

Marcotti: Phil Foden. Now, it’s not entirely down to him: long season; poor defensive football from Gareth Southgate; his position on the pitch; Jude Bellingham coming into his area more often he would like; the fact that when he looks to the bench for guidance he doesn’t see Pep Guardiola but Southgate instead. All are mitigating factors. But he’s making mental errors of the sort he doesn’t usually make at Manchester City. Exhibit A is his disallowed goal against Slovakia, when he ran into an offside position. That can’t happen at youth level, let alone his level.

Dawson: Foden also. Whether it’s down to the position he’s playing, Southgate’s risk-averse football, or that he’s tired after a long campaign, he’s not looked himself. He’s just come off his best-ever season for City but he’s been on the periphery for England. Letting him play more centrally might help.

Olley: England’s general level has been so disappointing that it almost feels unfair to single out one player, but I can understand why the other guys have pointed to Foden. Yes, his positioning isn’t ideal off the left but it isn’t like he’s never played there for City and he’s just not affecting the games as he should. It was an obvious individual mistake to drift offside for his disallowed goal against Slovakia. If — and it is a big if — Southgate is going to make changes to England’s attack for Saturday’s quarterfinal against Switzerland, Foden should be at most risk of losing his place. Southgate would have faced a backlash for dropping Foden before the tournament but the reaction would be very different now.

Laurens: I was going to pick an England player but the boys have done it for me. So I will say strikers in general — the big ones, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé, Álvaro Morata, Harry Kane, Gianluca Scamacca, Kai Havertz, Rasmus Højlund, Memphis, Lukaku and Lewandowski. What is going on? It has been a couple of goals, the odd penalty, but mainly missed chances and lack of rhythm. And half of them are out already. In terms of proper No. 9s, it’s Georgia’s Georges Mikautadze who has been the best. And that’s incredible.

Marsden: England have a few candidates but Juls’ point about No. 9s not stepping up is a good one. Ronaldo has no goals from a tournament-high 20 shots, including a missed penalty, and Lukaku also failed to net before Belgium’s elimination. Mbappé’s only goal came from a penalty and Højlund and Lewandowski both struggled with fitness issues. I’ll go for Ronaldo, but he still has time to redeem himself.

Ogden: Memphis. Only Robin van Persie has scored more all-time goals for Netherlands than Depay. Just think about that for a minute — Depay has more international goals than Ruud van Nistelrooy, Dennis Bergkamp, Marco van Basten and Patrick Kluivert. He has looked second-rate for the Dutch at Euro 2024, however, and nowhere near the level of his illustrious predecessors.

What is the most exciting quarterfinal tie and why?

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How ‘incredible’ Turkey stunned Austria at Euro 2024

Craig Burley reacts to Turkey’s 2-1 win over Austria in the round of 16 at Euro 2024.

Dawson: ​​France vs. Portugal. Kylian Mbappé against Cristiano Ronaldo. Two faces of world football, one at the peak of his powers and the other on his way out. It could be a passing of the baton or a statement from Ronaldo that there’s life in him yet. Either way, it should be fascinating.

Marcotti: I’ll say Germany vs. Spain, because, unless Portugal score first, their game promises to be one-way traffic and Les Bleus just sitting and waiting to hit on the break. Spain have looked like the best team in the tournament, but they obviously have their flaws. Germany have been criticized, though it’s worth remembering where they were six months ago and how quickly expectations have risen. I think Julian Nagelsmann has shown himself to be unafraid of making big decisions and has reaped the benefits.

Ogden: England vs. Switzerland … sorry, just kidding! The tie of the round is Germany vs. Spain — the hosts against the outstanding team so far. I picked Germany to win the tournament because of home advantage and their young stars such as Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz and will stick with them, but Spain will be the acid test in Stuttgart.

Olley: Germany vs. Spain because, for the first time at Euro 2024, it pits two proper heavyweights against each other who have both shown a high level in the tournament to date. Tournaments are always better the longer the host nation stays in, too, and the country has come to a virtual standstill with each game so far.

Marsden: Spain vs. Germany, because I expect France vs. Portugal to be more cagey. Spain have been the best team at the tournament so far and Williams and Yamal have provided some of the most exciting football. Also, watch Rodri’s growing importance on the tournament. Coming up against the hosts will really test Spain, though.

Laurens: No doubt it is Germany vs. Spain — which is like a final in the quarterfinals. Like Rob says, France vs. Portugal and the “retrouvailles” [reunion] of Mbappé and Ronaldo will be special. England vs. Switzerland doesn’t interest me so I will pick Netherlands vs. Turkey, because it will be different to the kind of quarterfinals we usually get.

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