In a European Championship brimming with exceptional performances by wing backs—Denzel Dumfries against Ukraine, Denzel Dumfries against Austria, Thomas Meunier against Russia, Thorgan Hazard against Denmark, Leonardo Spinazzola against Turkey, Connor Roberts’s reproductive organs against Turkey—the most remarkable one of all came from Germany’s Robin Gosens against Portugal. It is barely an exaggeration to attribute literally all of Germany’s constant, lethal attacking of Portugal’s defense in the 4–2 blowout win to Gosens, and the only thing equal in magnitude to the amazement of watching the left wing back, with a knife between his teeth, race forward and gash Portugal time after time after time, was the total bafflement that Portugal didn’t even try to stop him.
From the opening whistle until he was subbed off in the 62nd minute, Gosens was the most potent attacking force on a pitch that didn’t lack for heavy-duty firepower. In the fifth minute, he’d kicked the ball into the back of the net with an acrobatic effort that he was unlucky to see ruled out due to an offside elsewhere. In the 35th minute, with Germany down a goal against the run of play, he boomed in a cross that Kai Havertz would’ve almost certainly turned in had Portugal’s Rúben Dias not beat him to it with a touch that led to an equalizing own goal. In the 51st minute, he more or less repeated the play in the preceding sentence, this time finding Havertz with the cross to assist the goal that made it 3–1. In the 60th minute, he headed in the result-clinching 4–1 goal, and, having directly created three of the team’s four goals, was soon taken off, his job done and done well.
It had to be tremendously satisfying for Gosens to have put on that kind of show, in that tournament, against that opposition. The 26-year-old is something of a late bloomer. He couldn’t find an elite German club that believed in his talent as a youth, so he had to go to his father’s native Holland to find his breakthrough. A couple good seasons at mid-table Eredivisie club Heracles convinced Serie A club Atalanta to take a flyer on him, when they brought him in for a transfer fee of about €1 million in 2017. In Italy, Gosens has really come into his own, especially over the past couple seasons. He’s had a sum total of 17 goals and assists in each of the last two league seasons (nine goals and eight assists in 2019–20, 11 and six in 2020–21), and had quietly become one of the very best attacking wing back specialists in the game. Having worked himself into the national team setup in 2020 with his first caps, and now after that star turn against Portugal (in which he was able to exact a juicy bit of personal revenge against Cristiano Ronaldo), no one will doubt or overlook his considerable talents from now on.
Gosens, then, is clearly a very good player who some of the biggest club teams in the world have tried and failed to stymie. That the wing back played a great game in a system that favors him would not, in a vaccum, be something for Portugal to lose much sleep over. The problem, though, is that the Portuguese didn’t even try to impede the man who was almost by himself slaughtering them.
Watch the video above again, and make note of the incredible similarities on not just Gosens’s goal-creating and -scoring plays but the vast majority of the other ones, too. Nearly all of them start with three or four Germans bunched up on the right Portugal’s right flank, then feature a long switch of play to Gosens, who almost unfailingly finds himself in acres and acres and acres of completely free space near or fully inside the penalty area. Germany spammed that play—gather players on the right to congest the pitch there, then swing the ball over to an open Gosens on the weak side—constantly during the hour-plus the wing back was on the pitch, and it’s like Portugal didn’t even notice! How on Earth can an elite-level team let itself get smashed by the exact same play over and over and over again without changing something?
Right back Nelson Semedo is the easy scapegoat for Portugal, and he was indeed the most obvious victim of Germany’s go-to move. But if you watch the highlights above, Semedo is usually right where he needs to be, assisting the defenders in the box against the Germans’ barrage of central runs, preventing what would’ve been even easier passes into even more dangerous areas had Semedo left the center backs to fend for themselves and marked Gosens more closely. Portugal’s problem was more structural, about how neither the midfielders or the right-sided winger did enough to help prevent the back four from being out-numbered and overrun by Germany’s three attackers and two wing backs. In fact the only time you saw a winger anywhere near Gosens on any of his three goal involvements, it was substitute Rafa Silva’s late and half-hearted attempt to mark Gosens right before the German scored his basically uncontested header. If there’s blame on anyone, it should go first and foremost toward Portugal manager Fernando Santos, who simply did not do his job.
Nevertheless, Gosens’s match-winning performance was a well-deserved testament to his arrival onto the big stage, and whereas Dutch wing back Denzel Dumfries’s tournament showing probably flatters his underlying talents some, Gosens truly is that good. Gosens has had few believers for most of his career, so it’s great to see him display his talents so irrefutably as to make converts of us all. It’s just strange that Santos was seemingly the last to believe that Gosens was capable of doing all of that, even while it was happening, again and again, right before his own eyes.