Andrew Thompson continues the OOTB tradition of tracking youngsters as he lists the 10 to watch at Euro 2016.
The beginning of what is, for me, the best international tournament in the football world is just days away – the European Championship. Many memorable moments, bitter rivalries that span decades, and a plethora of brilliant footballers will take to the pitch in places like Lyon, Lille, Bordeaux and indeed the City of Lights. One of the most exciting aspects of the Euro’s comes by way of the next generation – youngsters who have broken through at the highest level and who now hope to cement their places amongst the national elite…and this summer, there are many such players.
It’s important to note first that this was an incredibly difficult piece to tackle, as the amount of young players who are beyond worthy of a mention was tough to sift through and narrow down to just ten. With that in mind, this isn’t a top ten list in regards to the best ten on offer, but rather a list of ten who are not only worth keeping an eye on, but also players who are likely to see plenty of time on the pitch for their respective countries. So, without further delay, here is our list of ten youngsters to watch this summer in France.
Note: Players will be listed alphabetically by nation represented.
Note: Players eligible could not be older than twenty-two.
Jason Denayer (Belgium // 20 // Center-Back)
If there ever was a moment to shine for a young center-back, that moment is now for Jason Denayer. Having impressed during his loan spell at Turkish giants Galatasaray, Denayer was rewarded by Marc Wilmots and called up to his provisional squad. Fate would play its role and well in his favor, when injuries to captain Vincent Kompany, Dedryck Boyata and Nicolas Lombaerts have now all but assured Denayer of his place in the Belgium XI this summer. It will be a tough task, as he will have to negotiate some tricky Italian forwards as well as a date with Zlatan Ibrahimović. Should he show well, it should guarantee him a big future at club level, even if not at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Mateo Kovačić (Croatia // 22 // Center-Midfielder)
There is no lack of quality when it comes to Croatia, especially in midfield. The Balkan nation continues to defy belief with the amount of technically gifted players they produce, and Mateo Kovačić is the best of the bunch that isn’t named Luka Modrić or Ivan Rakitić. There are other youngsters that could have been chosen from the same nation however, with the likes of Marko Pjaca, Marko Rog and the obvious Ante Ćorić, but Kovačić looks primed for a key role in Ante Čačić’s midfield. Capable of playing a deeper holding role, a traditional central midfield role, or slotting in as a number 10 or even on the right, Kovačić is probably the most versatile option in Croatia’s vaunted midfield arsenal. While many tip Croatian success to rely on the performances of Modrić and Rakitić, make no mistake about the importance of the contributions made by Kovačić as well.
Dele Alli (England // 20 // Center-Midfielder)
Tottenham’s nearly season had three key ingredients: a wonderful center-back pairing, Harry Kane, and Dele Alli. The meteoric rise of Alli is the stuff that dreams are made of. Just two seasons ago he was staring for League One side Milton Keynes Dons to the tune of 16 goals in 39 appearances, which prompted manager Mauricio Pochettino to recall him to White Hart Lane after the 14/15 season, a move no one could have expected to produce in the manner in which it did. Fast forward to the present and Alli has just finished a club season for the record books, becoming the youngest English midfielder to score 10 league goals in the Premier League, ending up second in our midfielder rankings. His England career has a story just as stunning. He received his first cap on November 17th against France, scoring the opening goal in a 2-0 win, and in a recent appearance against Germany in late March, not only did he start, but also he received man of the match honors. For a nation who may struggle centrally this summer, Alli will be key to both the attack and defensive efforts. Able to drive the team forward but also have the work rate to shield the back four, this could be the perfect ending to a break out year for a talented youngster.
Kingsley Coman (France // 19 // Attacking-Midfielder)
Three years, three different clubs, three league titles – Kingsley Coman wins wherever he goes, but it’s this past season with German champions Bayern Munich that Coman truly announced himself to Europe. After breaking through at Paris Saint Germain and becoming their youngest ever player to feature in Lique 1, a move to Juventus came to fruition and then a two-year loan spell in Bavaria, where he now remains for one more season at least. Being taken under the wing of Pep Guardiola, Coman formed a devastating attack combination with fellow newcomer Douglas Costa on the opposite wing. His pace, high degree of technical proficiency, direct approach and show-stopping ability justly see him in Didier Deschamps’ French squad this summer. While it’s not clear if he’ll start ahead of Dimitri Payet or not, rest assured that he will have a large role to play either as a starter or a first-choice impact sub off the bench for the hosts.
Julian Draxler (Germany // 22 // Attacking-Midfielder)
There are three other German youngsters that could be in this space; Julian Weigl, Joshua Kimmich and Leroy Sané, all who have broken through and shone for Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Schalke 04 respectively, but Julian Draxler is likely to be given the starting role on the left of Germany’s attack in response to Marco Reus yet again missing out on a major tournament through injury. Having moved from Schalke to VfL Wolfsburg this season in the wake of the departure of Kevin De Bruyne, Draxler was seen as the ideal replacement. His domestic performances for Die Wölfe were strong (though at times inconsistent), but it was his influential showings in the Champions League that saw them reach the knockout stage that earned him even more plaudits. With Joachim Löw taking few natural wide players this summer, Draxler will be battling veteran Lukas Podolski for the left side birth. If projections are to be believed, it’s Draxler’s spot to lose, and should he show well, he can finally come good on much of the expectations people have placed on him.
Arkadiusz Milik (Poland // 22 // Center-Forward)
When your first choice striker goes by the name of Robert Lewandowski, it’s hard to imagine the need for any other player to lead the line – in the case of Arkadiusz Milik, Poland have a partner for the Bayern Munich hit-man in a 4-4-2 formation that coach Adam Nawalka is likely to rely upon this summer. Coming off a wonderful season with Ajax Amsterdam that saw him net 21 times in 31 appearances and make the young players team of the year, the young center forward looks primed to aid Lewandowski in a Polish attack that led Euro qualifying in goals with 33 goals. With Ajax sure to be viewed as a stepping-stone, Milik will do well to make the best of his summer jaunt in Gallic country, as it’s increasingly difficult to find quality center-forwards below the top tier. Though a move away after just one year in the Dutch capital is unlikely, a good showing will stand to improve on his reputation as one of the best up and coming strikers on the continent.
Raphaël Guerreiro (Portugal // 22 // Left-Back)
It would have been easy to pick wunderkind Renato Sanches or even André Gomes, but Raphaël Guerreiro is perhaps the one that deserves the most mention. Sanches has completed his move to Bayern Munich as his career continues to skyrocket, while Gomes is starring for Spanish side Valencia, but it’s Guerreiro that has yet to get his big break – this summer could be that break. Still plying his trade with French minnows Lorient, the Le Blanc-Mesnil native has already made 102 appearances in three seasons for the Brittany side. Viewed as one of the best left-back’s in Lique 1, this summer could very well mean a move to a much larger club. With Portugal’s other option at left-back being Eliseu and the injured Fábio Coentrão, the long-term future is surely Guerreiro; a future that should start this summer.
Victor Lindelöf (Sweden // 21 // Center-Back)
Sweden may be relying on the one and only Zlatan this summer to hopefully fire them past the group stage, but it’s the back four that will have just as much influence. While Erik Hamrén can rely on Mikael Lustig and Martin Olsson on either side of the defense and veteran Andreas Granqvist in the center, it’s Victor Lindelöf that will be called upon to complete a defensive quartet that will have to remain firm against the likes of Belgium and Italy. Lindelöf has been one of the major talking points of Liga NOS this past season, breaking into the first-team at SL Benfica and playing a vital role for the Portuguese champions. With his future secure at a club who has a brilliant track record of developing talent, his national team future should be nailed down with a good showing.
Breel Embolo (Switzerland // 19 // Forward)
Most people have only heard of Breel Embolo via FIFA or Football Manager, but the Swiss youngster is far more than pixels or one’s and zero’s. Still just nineteen, the pacey forward capable of slotting in either at center-forward or wide right has quite a few eyes trained on him for both club and country. His performances this season for Swiss champions FC Basel that saw him net ten goals and provide seven assists in just twenty-seven appearances sheds light on the kind of player he is. Currently linked with a move to Tottenham, Embolo should have every opportunity to showcase his talents this summer. Though Swiss coach Vladimir Petković is likely to call on the likes of Haris Seferović and Admir Mehmedi to lead the line with Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, the Swiss strikers are inconsistent performers, as demonstrated two summers ago in Brazil. A role as an impact sub is guaranteed for Embolo, but do not be surprised if he gets the call to start should Seferović, Mehmedi and even Eren Derdiyok fail to produce.
Hakan Çalhanoglu (Turkey // 22 // Attacking-Midfielder)
Turkey has it all to do and more this summer after being placed in a group with tournament heavyweight Spain as well as a talent-laden Croatia and a tricky Czech Republic who they already tangled with in qualifying. Though influential performances from captain Arda Turan are key to any success they hope to achieve, it’s the talismanic Hakan Çalhanoglu who has the daunting task of being the creative focal point for a Turkey side that often struggles to score enough goals. He’s a key component in the Bayer Leverkusen attack that helped the North Rhine-Westphalia club finish third in the Bundesliga this season, and much will be expected of him this summer from coach Fatih Terim. Brilliant from set pieces and brimming with creativity, Çalhanoglu is able to slot in behind the striker or on either flank, but he will likely feature behind the striker in the creative center. His form for his country coming into the tournament is strong, and if it carries over into the tournament, Turkey is capable of springing a surprise or two.
Written by Andrew Thompson