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The New Euro Stars

Most of what happens across the 90 minutes of a soccer match doesn’t matter. If a player wins a header in his own penalty area, how much credit can he take for a goal scored two minutes later? Securing a tackle, holding possession against a press, being able to drop a defender with a couple stepovers — all those tertiary actions are necessary for the ball to end up in the net, but they go up in smoke whenever it doesn’t.

Since soccer produces so few definitive events per game, goalscorers — and to a lesser extent, goal creators — carry an outsize importance. It’s obvious, sure, but so is the idea that three is worth more than two, and the NBA took decades to figure that out. As clubs have begun valuing efficient chance creation — in the Premier League, the rate of goals per shot has gone up by 7 percent since 2009 — it’s fitting that the dominant players of this era are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two converted wingers who stopped crossing the ball and combined to score 572 combined goals in 585 La Liga appearances.

What comes next? Will the next class of superstars be another group of less-dominant goal monsters? Or could the defining players of the next generation be a pair of 23-year-olds who influence the game without the gaudy scoring numbers?

Paul Pogba and David Alaba come at that question from different angles. The former is the flashy gamebreaker, and the latter is the guy you can’t help but notice because he seems to be everywhere at all times. In the Age of Ronaldo and Messi, as positions have become more specialized in service of efficiency, the gap between goalscorer and everyone else seemed to grow. With Pogba and Alaba that could change: They don’t score much; they just do everything else. Their "positions" are just springboards; they exist up, down, and across the field. While all narratives ultimately get formed by the club game — it’s where players make most of their money and spend most of their time — this summer’s European Championship promises to push both France’s Pogba and Austria’s Alaba into a brighter spotlight.

Every few offseasons, there’s one ripple-effect signing: A guy that every big club wants because he’s better than everyone else available. Get him and you’ve got a leg up on the competition. That player signs with a club, causing other suitors to settle for lesser alternatives or reconsider their plans completely. Those decisions then affect the teams in the next financial bracket down, and so on.

In 2009, it was Ronaldo to Madrid. In 2011, it was Fernando Torres to Chelsea. In 2013, it was Gareth Bale to Madrid and Neymar to Barcelona. And in 2014, it was Luis Suárez to Barcelona.

This summer, every team in the world wants Pogba. Rumors of a precontract with Barcelona have floated around for about a year. Bayern Munich wished him a happy birthday from their Twitter account. Real Madrid felt compelled to issue a statement denying they made an offer to sign him. Pep Guardiola has hinted at interest. José Mourinho, back when he still had a job in London, said Chelsea wouldn’t be signing Pogba for no reason other than "I love the Eiffel Tower, but I can’t have the Eiffel Tower in my garden."

Now that Mourinho’s at Manchester United, there are suggestions of a potential reunion with Pogba, who was infamously allowed to leave the club for free in 2012. And of course, Paris Saint-Germain, owned by the nation of Qatar, want to bring him back to his homeland.

If Pogba does in fact leave Juventus — he’s under contract until 2019 but stands to get quite a raise if he moves to any of the aforementioned clubs — he’ll be the next ripple-effect transfer. But he’s different — and not just because he has shaved a minion and a Poke Ball into the side of his head at various points. Bale, Neymar, Torres, Suárez, and Ronaldo have all scored at least 20 goals in a domestic season. Pogba has never hit double digits.

That said, when he scores, it should count triple:

Pogba can play anywhere in the central midfield: screening the defense from deep, a shuttling role just left of center, or even higher up with less defensive responsibility. By the very nature of that position — farther from the net than an attacker — goals come less often. So, with more than 0.2 goals and 0.4 assists per 90 minutes, he’s an elite goal-contributor for his position. (For comparison: Messi averaged 0.9 goals and 0.5 assists per 90 this year. He is Prometheus.)

Of course, those numbers don’t really matter if Pogba doesn’t also do all the other things a midfielder’s supposed to do. In that case, he’d just be a bad striker disguised as a center mid. Traditionally, the best center midfielders are described as "metronomes" because they set the tempo for their team’s attack. They know when to flip an interception into a counter, or when to step on the ball and slow things down. To watch someone like Barcelona’s Xavi Hernández, at the height of his powers, was to feel like whatever happened in a game happened only because he wanted it to.

If Xavi was a conductor, Pogba is the guy in the back, whaling on the bass drum. He’s keeping the tempo, but the percussive beats can knock the rest of the players off the stage until he’s the only one left standing.

What’s most incredible about the Pogba Experience is how much it seems like he’s playing an American sport. He’s taken the classic, consistent precision of central midfield play and turned it into a slam dunk contest. He’ll misplace a few passes (his 83 percent completion percentage is fine) or he’ll commit a couple unnecessary fouls, then all of a sudden he’s won the ball and is burning down a midfield like a one-man fastbreak. He’ll disappear for a five-minute stretch, and then get on the end of a hail mary in the box and flip it into the far post. Despite being one of the most physically imposing players in the world, he navigates tight spaces with the elegance of a figure skater.

There’s some still-unquantifiable value to the midfielder who never loses the ball and always keeps things moving in the right direction. Most of the midfielders on Barcelona and Real Madrid complete something close to 90 percent of their passes. But despite Pogba’s obvious inefficiencies, his game-breaking moments and looming threat smooth out the profile. Play him farther back, and his goal-scoring becomes even more valuable; slide him higher up the field, and the possession weaknesses all but disappear.

It takes one hand to count the number of midfielders on this planet who can change a game in a single moment. Come to think of it, you probably only need one finger.

"David Alaba is our God." That was Pep Guardiola, last October, when he was still Bayern Munich’s manager, talking about a player who has scored only 11 goals in 152 Bundesliga appearances. Alaba’s holiness was derived from his flexibility. "He has played in nearly all 10 positions." After all, if God’s on your team, why play him in just one spot?

Yes, Alaba had played nearly all 10 positions. The impressive thing was that he sometimes occupied every role over the course of a single possession:

Can a utility player be a superstar? Watch that clip again and try to say "No."

The value of a jack-of-all-trades is usually abstract: It impacts the way a squad is built. Having a winger who can slide into the middle lets a manager make a tactical change without wasting a sub. But with Alaba, the effect is immediate: as he moves from centerback to left wing to holding midfield to lone striker, the unpredictability overwhelms whatever plans the opposition had, because there’s no accounting for a central defender linking up passes at the top of your penalty box.

It makes sense that Alaba is such a holy figure to Guardiola. The manager’s broad tactical principles try to constantly create numerical and talent advantages across the field. Alaba’s ability to slip in and out of different zones is, well, divine.

Alaba might be a top-10 player at three different positions — center back, fullback, and center mid — and that’s his straight-forward appeal. But when he’s isolated into one spot throughout a game, there’s a ceiling on his value — and it’ll never be as high as someone constantly putting the ball into the goal. If you discover the multiverse, though, why would you flatten it out?

Then again, who’s to say he wouldn’t score 20 goals a season if you forced him to play higher up the field?

To be a superstar, it takes more than just positional flexibility or gravitational bouts of influence. It, of course, requires a at least one Tumblr page dedicated to your #bae-level reactions or your string of Cam Newton-inspired celebrations.

Ronaldo and Messi exist culturally in separate but equally monolithic ways — respectively, "a male model whose body has some nonaesthetic utility" and "it me, the best soccer player in the world." Pogba and Alaba haven’t had their personalities sanded down just yet. They’re posing on Instagram in Carmelo Anthony jerseys or hanging out with Rae Sremmurd. And they each have hashtag portmanteaus that combine their last names with the word "boom." ("POGBOOM" now adorns the side of the Frenchman’s head.)

Pogba recently signed a reported 10-year, $44 million shoe deal with Adidas. (For comparison, James Harden’s Adidas deal is $200 million over 13 years.) Pusha T welcomed him to Adidas on Instagram, saying "You see us over here flourishing." With that kind of backing, combined with his pulsing playing style and obvious, outsized presence — look at that suit! — Pogba fits outlines of the modern superstar quite snugly. With Alaba, it’ll never be as clear; whatever team he’s on won’t outwardly orbit around him, even if he’s ultimately the gravity that pushes everything in motion. But if he isn’t already, Alaba’s going to become the lodestar for The Thinking Soccer Fan.

After years of internal drama and coaching decisions that gave way too much consideration to the Zodiac calendar, France is both the host country and the pretournament favorite at this month’s European Championship. They’ll be playing in front of a public that — thanks in no small part to a success of scandals involving underage sex, racist quotas, and intra-squad sex-tape blackmail — typically hasn’t looked at the team in the kindest light. So, no pressure, Paul! Meanwhile, the stress facing Alaba is still heavy, but less fraught: He’s Austria’s best player — by far — and he’ll be asked to play a more attacking role than he does for his club team. The successes or failures of both teams will, rightly or wrongly, fall at the feet of the two young stars.

"From defensive midfielder to attacking midfielder to attacker. I want to take the qualities from everyone."

That’s Pogba talking to ESPNFC’s Simon Kuper about himself, though it’s not hard to imagine Alaba saying something similar.

They’re the same age, and they’re both poised to rule soccer for the foreseeable future. Pogba takes the big swings, and Alaba does all the little things, but they’re linked by their ability to affect what’s happening all across the field. Two sides of the same coin — or maybe, adjacent edges of a Rubik’s Cube: at the Euros, as Pogba will be surrounded by a super-talented French team and Alaba’s the attacking focal point of a shallow Austrian squad, their typical roles will reverse.

Neither one has better than 80/1 odds to win the tournament’s Golden Boot, but Pogba’s even odds with Ronaldo (10/1) to win player of the tournament. Barring a shocking run by Austria, Alaba won’t be in contention, but when Austria takes on Portugal on June 18, we’ll get to see Ronaldo, the sport’s (just slightly) fading present rub up against its dynamic future. If this summer tells us anything, though, it might be this: Alaba and Pogba are already here.

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