The inaugural Nations League is over and Portugal are the champions after their 1-0 win over Netherlands on Sunday.
There is no doubt that, even with VAR, it was a success. Nick Miller recaps the most memorable highs and lows from a tournament with plenty of both.
It’s always easy to attribute the improvement of a player to the genius of his manager.
Who knows whether Bernardo Silva’s progression from ‘very good’ to ‘astonishingly good’ is down to Pep Guardiola’s coaching, playing with superior colleagues at Manchester City or simply natural progression?
Whatever the reason Portugal are grateful, because they now have a successor to Cristiano Ronaldo as their talisman.
Bernardo has a way to go before he becomes the central figure who bails his team out of trouble on his own, but with him leading Portugal’s other upcoming youngsters like Joao Felix, the new Nations League champions might not need that kind of help anymore.
Performance of the tournament: Frenkie de Jong against England
The €75m fee Barcelona paid Ajax for De Jong this summer might turn out to be a bargain, as the midfielder seems to have not only the ball, but every other player on a bit of string.
He controls games like few others and showcased his full range of skills against England in the semifinals, impressing both with his use of the ball and how he positioned himself without it.
It’s a shame we won’t see more of the thrilling young Ajax team together, but if playing for Barca means we see more of De Jong commanding massive games, then it will all be worth it.
Goal of the tournament: Cristiano Ronaldo against Switzerland
Almost nobody can impact a game of football like Cristiano Ronaldo and his hat trick against Switzerland in the semifinals put Portugal on the road to success.
His third goal was the best of the lot as, cutting in from the left and arrowing a shot home, it was as if there was absolutely nothing else in the world other than him, the ball and the bottom corner of the net.
Mistake of the tournament: John Stones against Netherlands
John Stones will want to forget his impact on England’s tournament, after the defender’s errant passes gifted a couple of goals to Netherlands in their semifinal defeat.
You could argue it was an inevitable consequence of Gareth Southgate’s instructions that his team play out from the back.
The style has inherent risks which must be accepted – Pep Guardiola’s Man City took time to perfect it and Kevin De Bruyne has said before that a defender in that position is only as good as the options his teammates present for him – but that feels like letting Stones off the hook.
Even within systems like this, players have to take personal responsibility for individual errors and this was a whopper.
Three whoppers in fact: Stones lost
Matthjis de Ligt for the first goal, gave the ball to Memphis Depay for the second (which Kyle Walker eventually put through his own net) and offered a hospital pass to Ross Barkley for Quincy Promes’ third.
Penalty of the tournament: Jordan Pickford against Switzerland
Two is probably too small a sample size to conclude that England have got over their national mental block when it comes to penalty shootouts, but victory against Colombia in the World Cup round of 16 and Switzerland here at least shows they’re dealing with them slightly better.
Pickford has endured an indifferent season for Everton, but it’s impossible to deny the courage of a goalkeeper to not only step up and take a penalty, but score it with such certainty.
Whipped into the bottom corner with power, he then returned to his day job and saved one to seal third-place for England.
Theme of the tournament: VAR
At some point in the not-too-distant future, VAR will become less of a talking point as it becomes an intrinsic part of the game.
But for the moment it sticks out. Whether you’re for or against it, it’s impossible not to regard the process as frequently ridiculous.
England had two goals legitimately chalked off against the Dutch (although whether a player should be regarded as offside when his toenails are beyond the last man, as Jesse Lingard’s were, is another debate), but the pure comedy came in the Portugal vs. Switzerland game when a penalty was awarded to the hosts, only for the referee to call everything back and use VAR to give a spot-kick to the Swiss, for an incident a full minute earlier, instead.
Whether VAR will bring the necessary levels of “correctness” to decisions, time will tell, but at the moment it is negatively impacting the spectacle of watching a game.
Begrudging credit of the tournament: UEFA
It’s a tricky business to give any credit to football’s governing bodies, given the general mess the game is in.
But sometimes they do get things right, and the Nations League is one in the plus column for UEFA.
This competition really has livened the international calendar up, presenting some meaningful football and further legitimising non-World Cup and European Championship internationals in Europe.
There is still too much football – domestically, continentally, internationally – but the Nations League hasn’t added to that, instead it has made the football that would have been played anyway more meaningful.
Team of the tournament (4-3-3)
Jordan Pickford (ENG); Trent Alexander-Arnold (ENG), Manuel Akanji (SUI), Matthjis de Ligt (NED), Daley Blind (NED); Granit Xhaka (SUI), Frenkie de Jong (NED), Bruno Fernandes (POR); Bernardo Silva (POR), Memphis Depay (NED), Cristiano Ronaldo (POR).