The group stages of the Euros came to a thrilling close as teams scrambled to score the necessary goals and points to make it to the knockout stages. Andrew Thompson looks at some of the younger lot who helped their teams cross the line.
To say that Euro 2016 has been full of surprises would be quite the understatement. From all four British Isles nations reaching the knockout stages, Austria and Ukraine crashing out in horrendous fashion, and an unexpectedly early round of 16 clash of Italy against Spain, this edition of the Euro’s has proven to be as exciting as any in recent memory.
Before the tournament began, we took a look at ten young players who could be ones to watch during the tournament, so it is with that mindset that we bring you a list of five who have shone above the rest during the group stage. There were a few obvious selections, while others took some deliberation, but this list, much like the tournament, has a surprise or two in store for you.
Joshua Kimmich // Germany// 21 // Right Back
In my piece looking at ten youth players to keep an eye on at this summer, I highlighted Julian Draxler, given that he was slated to start on the left hand side of Germany’s attack. He did, but he’s failed to genuinely impress in the ways that many have expected, but one German youngster that certainly has is Joshua Kimmich. The Bayern Munich youngster, heralded this season at club level for his performances for now former manager Pep Guardiola, has great expectations levied his direction, and it’s his performance on Match Day 3 in the group stage against surprise package Northern Ireland that puts him on this list. Yes, it was only one performance, but such was the quality in said performance that deserves much credit.
Comfortable on the ball, willingness to get forward and deliver dangerous balls into the area, and a source of pace on the right side of the defense not provided by Benedikt Howedes are all qualities Germany genuinely lacked in the first two matches. It is unclear if Joachim Low will put additional faith in Kimmich moving into the knockout stages, but his bright performance shows that Germany could just have a long term option at right-back for the first time since the legendary Phillip Lahm.
Eric Dier // England // 22 // Midfielder
The outcry from many England fans at the exclusion of Premier League winner Danny Drinkwater raised concern for many that England didn’t have enough players able to be deployed in the holding role, but the early performances of Eric Dier have gone a long way to rid many of the concern. Dier remains the only player capable of being deployed in the holding role by Roy Hodgson effectively enough, but it’s his overall performances in other areas that shoot him up the English depth chart. His brilliant free kick in the opener against Russia is icing on the cake for him, but it’s been his willingness to deploy himself between the midfielders ahead of him and the defense behind that England really needed this summer.
His distribution has been good, and he’s been strong at challenging fifty-fifty balls, providing a quality lynch-pin behind the likes of Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli while the pair get forward and try to influence proceedings in the final third. Despite finishing second behind Wales in group C and being placed in the harder of the two knockout brackets, England’s chances of progression deeper in the tournament could live or die based off Dier’s ability to keep it simple and remain the anchor they need.
Laszlo Kleinheisler // Hungary // 22 // Midfielder
No one gave Hungary a chance of progressing into the knockout stage of the tournament, but here we are with the group stage complete and Hungary topping Group F and have set an appointment with Belgium in the round of 16. They’ve impressed with their dual ability to both possess and counter, and they’ve had a few youngsters strand and be counted; the one I want to highlight, is Laszlo Kleinheisler.
Despite being an outsider at club level with Werder Bremen, national team manager Bernd Storck was impressed with the young midfielder in the run up to the tournament and put his faith in him to the tune of two starts in Hungary’s first two matches, and that faith was repaid. Kleinheisler has shown his wonderful engine, direct style and even a bit of creativity when he set up Adam Szalai for Hungary’s first goal in the tournament against Austria. He’s come into the tournament very much an unknown quantity but surely he will leave it with a bit of a reputation that he can hopefully carry back to northern Germany.
Raphael Guerreiro // Portugal // 22 // Left Back
After making the list of ten to youngsters to watch this summer, Guerreiro is back after putting in two wonderful individual displays in the group state. While all the talk on Portuguese youngsters is surrounding Andre Gomes, who in fairness could easily be here in Guerreiro’s place, it was Portugal’s latest 3-3 result against Hungary that earns him the nod – because he didn’t feature…and it showed. Guerreiro had a slight knock (and was on a yellow) so he was justifiably replaced by Eliseu. What ended up being the veteran left-back’s first appearance of the tournament showed just how important Guerreiro is.
The left side of the pitch was a problem area all afternoon for the Iberian nation, with two of their three goals coming by way of Balasz Dzsudszak who found joy down that side, while Akos Elek and Gergo Lovrencsics routinely targeted areas in behind Eliseu for exploitation. Guerreiro’s ability to deliver service in to the box was missed (though Ronaldo and Nani still found supply), but it was his recovery pace and better positional awareness that Portugal were lacking. Should he pass fit for the round of 16, he undoubtedly will return to the XI and remain an important piece of the puzzle for the duration of Portugal’s stay in France.
Arkadiusz Milik // Poland // 22 // Striker
There has been much talk of Poland’s chances this summer, and after many of them labeled them a potential dark-horse, they responded in kind level on points with Germany after the group stage and find themselves with a favorable draw against Switzerland in the round of 16. Though star man Robert Lewandowski has yet to find the back of the net, it’s been youngster Arkadiusz Milik, deployed alongside the Bayern Munich hitman, that has risen to the occasion this summer.
Poland may only have two goals thus far in the tournament, but Milik has been involved in both, scoring the winner in their opener against Northern Ireland and setting up the only other goal when he found Jakub Blaszczykowski against the Ukraine. National team coach Adam Nawalka has done well to call upon the Ajax striker this summer to partner Lewandowski in a two-pronged attack that gives Poland two goal scoring threats through the middle rather than risking Lewandowski upfront alone and isolated. It’s his first major tournament for the full national team, and though he should probably be sitting on three goals overall, look for him to continue to perform as Poland seek a quarter-final birth or beyond.
Written by Andrew Thompson