Football isn’t going anywhere this summer, as we have the 2020 (?) UEFA European Championship to feast on, starting this Friday. 24 teams will be vying for the trophy after progressing through the qualification rounds, as Europe’s best players will be looking to lead their countries to glory. There are a fair few bright young talents on show too, so let us take a look at one player aged 23 or younger to watch out for from each country:
Italy – Federico Chiesa
The fact that he has been one of Juventus’ better players this season with 14 goals and nine assists in all competitions tells you all you need to know about Federico Chiesa’s quality. The 23-year-old winger already has 25 caps for his country at the senior level and should be expected to add more to his tally at the Euros given Italy’s relative lack of options on the wings.
In the last year, Chiesa has ranked in the 84th and 89th percentiles respectively for npxG and xA among attacking midfielders and wingers, so he should have a hand to play in Italy’s attacking exploits in the competition.
Switzerland – Rubén Vargas
Switzerland do not have too much youth in their squad, but the youngster they will certainly be using is Rubén Vargas. He has now been in the senior set-up for almost two years and has 12 caps, returning with a couple of goals too.
The 22-year-old forward spent this season in the Bundesliga with Augsburg, making 32 appearances in all competitions and playing a role in 10 goals. Switzerland’s do not exactly have a wealth of attacking options at their disposal, so they will need Vargas to fire if they are to progress from Group A.
Turkey – Ozan Kabak
Ozan Kabak may not have had the impact he would have desired at Liverpool, but he remains an integral player in his national squad. Just 13 appearances for the Reds to add to 14 from his time at Schalke at the initial stages of the 2020/21 campaign do not make up a successful season for the ex-Stuttgart centre-back, but he could salvage some of it with a successful Euros campaign.
Expected to partner Leicester City’s Çağlar Söyüncü at the heart of the Turkish defence, Kabak will have to play a key role in keeping things tight at the back for a side that possesses a fair amount of attacking firepower which includes the likes of Burak Yılmaz and Hakan Çalhanoğlu.
Wales – Neco Williams
Kabak will run into his club teammate Neco Williams in Group A at the Euros, and the Liverpool academy graduate will also have an integral role in his nation’s defence despite not figuring too often for his club, as he made just 14 appearances for the Reds this season.
Wales have typically employed a 3-4-3 with Ryan Giggs as the manager, where Williams has been used as a wing-back on either side, although he certainly prefers the right flank being naturally right-footed. So, it will be interesting to see what sort of role the 20-year-old defender has to play in the Euros, and whether he will excel in a slightly unnatural position.
Belgium – Jérémy Doku
Youth certainly is not Belgium’s forte as they only have one under-23 player in their squad, but boy is he good. Jérémy Doku has just turned 19 less than a month ago, but he had attracted the attention of some of Europe’s best clubs including Liverpool last summer when Anderlecht were open to selling him. In the end, he chose Rennes in France, and has been rewarded with consistent game time as he has featured 37 times in all competitions for Les Rennais.
However, he has not made a huge impact on the scoreline too often with just two goals and three assists this season, but he does have other strengths. The teenager’s average of 3.46 successful dribbles and 10.8 progressive carries both per 90 make him one of the best players in France in those metrics, so he could prove to be a game changer for his country even if he is only used as a substitute.
Denmark – Jonas Wind
Denmark could be one of the dark horses in the Euros, and Jonas Wind might well be the man to blow opponents away in a very youthful attack which also includes the likes of Kasper Dolberg, Andreas Skov Olsen and Mikkel Damsgaard.
After an injury-hit 2019/20 season when he had to undergo knee surgery, Wind took the Danish Superliga by storm this time out with a terrific return of 15 goals and eight assists in just 28 outings. That placed him second in the goal involvements chart, and although that might be a target too high for him in the Euros, the 22-year-old forward will surely be hard to contain for opposition defences.
Finland – Marcus Forss
Wind might be a force of nature for Denmark when he is in the mood, Nordic rivals Finland have their own attacking powerhouse in Marcus Forss. The Brentford striker has made 44 appearances for his club (although just 12 were starts) this campaign as they secured promotion, contributing with eight goals and an assist.
Teemu Pukki is probably going to be Finland’s first-choice centre-forward in the Euros, but Forrs might get a couple of chances to make an impact off the bench, and he certainly knows how to do that from his time in West London.
Russia – Denis Makarov
Denis Makarov only moved into the Russian Premier League in January 2020 by securing a transfer from Neftekhimik to Rubin Kazan, but he has already had a great impact on the side that finished fourth in the league this season, with seven goals and an assist in 28 appearances.
The Euros will be Makarov’s first competition with his country’s senior side having featured in the under-21 Euro group stage a couple of months back, so it will be interesting to see if he can adapt to such high-pressure new surroundings quickly enough to get a debut and make an impact.
Austria – Saša Kalajdžić
If you think you know what a ‘towering header’ looks like and you haven’t watched Saša Kalajdžić, then to put it plainly, you’re wrong. Towering above defenders at about 2 metres tall, the Stuttgart centre-forward has been a real menace in this Bundesliga season, scoring 16 goals and setting up five others in a very impressive campaign.
He has won 4.55 aerial duels per 90 on average this season, so all Austria have to do is put the ball into the box, and Kalajdžić will inevitably get on the end of something. There is even better news – they have the likes of Christoph Trimmel (arguably one of Europe’s best set-piece takers) and David Alaba in their squad, so the crosses will surely come.
The Netherlands – Donyell Malen
Ryan Gravenberch has made most headlines as far as young stars in the Dutch squad are concerned, but don’t sleep on Donyell Malen. The 22-year-old striker was explosive last season too, when he scored 11 times in 14 games before injuries sidelined him for the rest of the campaign, but he was back in full flow this time out with a great return of 19 goals in 32 Eredivisie matches.
Frank de Boer has not made too many new fans with his insistence of using a 5-3-2 which has often faltered in attack, and although Memphis Depay and Wout Weghorst will most likely be the strike pairing, Malen can certainly have an impact off the bench too.
North Macedonia – Eljif Elmas
He is just 21 years old, but Eljif Elmas is already one of the first names on the North Macedonia team sheet, having made his international debut nearly four years ago. Although he has made 33 Serie A appearances this season, only three have been starts, so he should be relatively fresh for the tournament too.
North Macedonia are not expected to find a way past the group stage in their inaugural Euros campaign, but if they are to have even half a chance, Elmas will have to operate at the very top of his game.
Ukraine – Vitaliy Mykolenko
Much like Elmas, Vitalit Mykolenko has been a key figure in the Ukrainian national side despite being only 22 years old, having made his debut in November 2018. He plies his trade at the club level in his home country too, for champions Dynamo Kyiv, who handed him 22 league starts this year.
Mykolenko should be the first-choice left-back for Ukraine in the tournament, as Oleksandr Zinchenko will most likely be used in midfield as has been typical for him at the international level.
Croatia – Nikola Vlašić
Croatia do have Luka Modrić, Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović as three very good midfield options, but Nikola Vlašić cannot be ignored either. Zlatko Dalić likes to use a 4-3-3 for his national team, so Vlašić is most likely going to have to settle for a spot on the bench.
The 23-year-old attacking midfielder has enjoyed a very successful campaign at CSKA Moscow, scoring 12 goals and assisting six in 34 starts for the side that finished fourth in the league. Evidently, he poses a different skillset to the trio listed above as he is much more dangerous at the sharp end of the pitch, so he will inevitably get a run out at some point.
Czechia– Adam Hložek
Adam Hložek is a name you might not have heard before, but prepare to hear it a lot of times from hereafter. Aged just 18, he has made 19 appearances in the Czech first division for Sparta Pragure, scoring 15 goals and providing assists for seven to average 1.31 goal involvements per 90. So, he finished as the joint top-scorer despite missing almost half the season through injury.
Of course, such unreal productivity has caught the eyes of clubs across Europe, so it should be no surprise that the likes of Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Ajax and RB Leipzig among others have reportedly been watching him. A solid Euros campaign would do his reputation no harm, so be sure to check where he is if your country comes up against Czechia.
England – Phil Foden
Need we really say anything about this man? 16 goals and 10 assists in 50 appearances for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City along with a couple of individual awards at the end of the season is not a bad haul for a footballer who isn’t even a month over 21, so Phil Foden will surely be a key player for England at the Euros.
Better yet, he has fully embraced the Skin fade/Stockport Gazza look, so it may well and truly be coming home.
Scotland – Billy Gilmour
Scotland only have four players aged 23 or younger in their Euros squad, but one of them is already a Champions League winner – Billy Gilmour. Admittedly, he did not play a huge role in Chelsea’s success as he played just two games in the competition and a subsequent 10 elsewhere, but the very fact that he has a place in such a quality-filled squad tells you how talented he is.
The 20-year-old midfielder certainly could have a chance of finding a starting spot for his national team, especially if Scott McTominay is used as a centre-back in a 3-5-2. He will surely face stiff competition from the likes of John McGinn, Callum McGregor, Stuart Armstrong and David Turnbull to name a few, but he will undoubtedly have some sort of a say in Scotland’s Euros campaign.
Poland – Jakub Moder
Poland find themselves in one of the relatively less formidable groups in the Euros, so they will surely be targeting progression to the knockout rounds. One player who should be key to their campaign is Brighton’s Jakub Moder, who has not had the most successful club campaign with just 12 league appearances and no goal involvements.
That should mean that he will be fresh, though, and his underlying numbers which rank him in the 99th percentile among midfielders with 2.66 shots per 90 show that he is due a goal, and there will be no better time to come up with one than the Euros. He is also fairly handing in terms of ball progression and defending, so he should be an important player in the Polish midfield.
Slovakia – László Bénes
The Slovakian national team does not have too many members plying their trade in the big five European leagues at club level, so such experienced players will be invaluable, and László Bénes is one of them as he spent half of this season at Augsburg on loan from Borussia Mönchengladbach, with the other half spent at his parent club. Combined, he made 22 appearances in all competitions, so his game time has not been too taxing.
Slovakia have been using a 4-2-3-1 lately where Hertha Berlin’s Ondrej Duda seems to be higher up the pecking order for the number 10 spot, Pavel Hapal might be tempted to find a way to slot both of them in the same team, where his previous use of a 4-1-4-1 might be lucrative.
Spain – Dani Olmo
Spain are not too big on youth either with just five players aged 21, but they have some serious talents in that category including Barcelona’s Pedri and Manchester City’s Ferran Torres, but the one we will be highlighting is RB Leipzig’s Dani Olmo, who returned with seven goals and nine assists in 46 appearances this season.
Spain have mostly used a 4-3-3 or its variant under Luis Enrique, where Olmo should have a spot on the left of midfield as the likes of Sergio Busquets, Thiago and Rodri are more defence-oriented. Olmo already has 11 senior caps and three goals to show for them, but he will certainly be looking to add to that tally at the Euros.
Sweden – Alexander Isak
Sweden will be missing Zlatan Ibrahimović in this tournament, but they have a more-than-able replacement in Alexander Isak, who scored 17 goals and set up two others in 34 matches in a very successful La Liga campaign. Robin Quaison, Jordan Larsson and Marcus Berg are Sweden’s alternatives with Dejan Kulusevski out at least for the first game due to a positive COVID-19 test.
He generated 15.5 xG in the league, so it is clear that his conversion is not based on luck or unsustainably good finishing, which is why he should be expected to score at the Euros too. Sweden have mostly used a 4-4-2 of late, so it will also be interesting to see how Isak interacts with his strike-partner, whoever that may be from the three options listed above.
France – Kylian Mbappé
It’s crazy to think that he is still under the age of 23 because Kylian Mbappé is incredibly good at football. His numbers this season have been simply sensational – 42 goals and 10 assists in 42 appearances, meaning that he ranks above the 90th percentile among forwards from Europe’s top 5 leagues in terms of non-penalty goals and assists per 90. Like Isak, his underlying numbers are brilliant too – 0.68 npxG and 0.26 xA per 90 rank him in the 98th and 97th percentiles respectively in the aforementioned dataset.
France, currently the world champions too, are many people’s favourites for the Euros, and it’s easy to see why when you take a look at their squad. Even in the midst of such incredibly talented names, Mbappé stands out, so he will undoubtedly be vital to his country’s chances in the tournament.
Germany – Kai Havertz
Germany are only taking a couple of under-23s to the Euros this time out as they have an ageing squad, but its filled with talent across the age groups. 18-year-old Jamal Musiala is one of the youngsters in their roster, and although he has an incredible potential, Kai Havertz will probably have a greater role to play in this competition.
After making a big-money switch from Bayer Leverkusen to Chelsea last summer, Havertz had a mediocre season by his standards with just nine goals and five assists in 48 games. However, it ended on the highest of highs, as he scored his first-ever UEFA Champions League goal in the final to help his side to the trophy against Manchester City. He looked very much in the mood in the pre-tournament friendly (albeit against Latvia), so he might be Germany’s key to unlocking difficult defences in a 3-4-3 system that has often looked blunt up front.
Hungary – Attila Szalai
Had Dominik Szoboszlai been fit for the Euros, the 20-year-old midfielder would have surely been the one to watch for Hungary as he arguably already is their best player, but his absence will further cripple their chances of making it out of the ‘Group of Death’. If they are to pull off any surprises even by taking points of their three opponents, they will need to be solid at the back, and that is where Attila Szalai will prove crucial.
The 23-year-old centre-back joined Fenerbahçe midway through this season, and he has had an instant impact on their defence with six clean sheets in 21 league starts. Hungary have mostly used a back-three in their warm-up games and World Cup Qualifiers, so watch out for him on the left of their defence.
Portugal – Nuno Mendes
Alongside France, Portugal are the favourites to reach the final, and they too have an insanely stacked squad. They have only got seven options across the back-four, though, and three of them are centre-backs. Of the remaining full-backs, Nélson Semedo is a right-back, João Cancelo can play on either side but prefers the right too, Raphaël Guerreiro is a left-sided and full-back, and then there’s 18-year-old Nuno Mendes.
Having made 29 league starts for eventual champions Sporting, Mendes has attracted the attention of many of Europe’s big hitters, most notably Manchester City. He probably will not be starting in the left-back spot ahead of Guerreiro, but he certainly has the capability to come off the bench and make a real impact should Fernando Santos find himself in such a situation.