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Andrew Thompson has a look back at Euro 2016 as he picks the 10 best young players of the tournament including the likes of Renato Sanches and Joshua Kimmich.
In the aftermath of the realization that Portugal are newly crowned European Champions for the first time in their history, though arguably undeserving of the title, it’s time to look back and reflect on the performances of the many youngsters who donned their boots on the pitches in France.
With the next generation of footballing prodigies on the verge of the road to stardom, Euro 2016, while not the most entertaining of tournaments in recent memory, certainly did not fail to show us that the future is bright for quite a few teenagers. So here they are, our Ten Youngsters of the Tournament (ordered alphabetically by nation).
Note: Players could not be older than 22-years of age
If our top five young players of the group stage list had been a top ten, Ajeti would certainly have been on it. Albania came closer than anyone imagined to reaching the knockout stage, after finishing third in Group A. While they only managed to find the back of the net a single time (their 1-0 win against Romania on the final day of the group stage), the fact that they hung on so well defensively against both France and Switzerland can be attributed to their organization and collective defending – and no one did that better than Ajeti. He was incredibly effective at reading passing lanes and supporting his compatriots in the back four, keeping captain Lorik Cana out of the XI after his suspension from his dismissal against Switzerland ended. With Albania looking to build on their qualification and subsequent performances in France, Ajeti undoubtedly will play a massive part in the future.
Undoubtedly one of the surprise inclusions on the list, it’s difficult to look at Austria in this tournament and point out anyone other than Julian Baumgartlinger and Robert Almer for any amount of praise (though Stefan Ilsanker also put in some good performances), but the Schalke-based youngster gets the nod for his positive contributions off the bench for the Unsere Burschen, including their only goal of the tournament in a 2-1 loss against upstart Iceland. His form in the run up to Euro 2016 was excellent but despite that he was relegated to a substitute’s role by Marcel Koller. But his playmaking abilities and knack for decision making where others (including David Alaba) failed shone through whenever he came on in the second half. With Austria going into World Cup qualifying with a massive monkey on their back, look for Schopf to be handed greater responsibility on the back of what he showed in France.
England’s spectacular failure at Euro 2016 is not as much of a surprise to most as you’d think, with the perennial underachievers taking an earlier than planned summer vacation after they were ousted by surprise quarterfinalist Iceland. Despite the negative press that will surround their failed summer jaunt in Gallic country, Tottenham’s Eric Dier certainly put in performances that will see his stock continue to rise both domestically and on the continent. Arguably England’s best player in the group stage, with three quality performances that included a thunderbolt freekick effort against Russia in their tournament opener, Dier’s improving ability to control and distribute play and positional awareness behind the midfielders and ahead of the back four showed why club boss Mauricio Pochettino puts such faith in him in North London. Though he was quite poor against Iceland (let’s face it, which England player wasn’t), his ability shown in the group earns him the nod here.
Though he only started two of France’s matches and appeared off the bench on four occasions, the young Bayern Munich wunderkind showed quite a few glimpses of ability as an impact sub that proved the hype surrounding him after his fantastic first season in Bavaria certainly wasn’t a fluke. Though he rightfully should not have been selected ahead of Antoine Griezmann or Dimitri Payet, Coman’s pace, technical ability and desire to be direct and run at his opponents brought something fresh and different from the substitutes bench that often times made France better once it was introduced. Many will have wanted to see Anthony Martial more than we were allowed, but Coman, should he continue to impress and develop for the German giants, will unquestionably be assured of his place in the French national set up for the next ten years at the very least – he’s truly one for not just the future, but the present as well.
For the past five years, Julian Draxler has dealt with the weight of expectation on his shoulders from one of the most passionate yet demanding fan-bases in world football. Coming from the highly credited Schalke youth set-up, Draxler has been seen as one of the next biggest and brightest to come through the German pipeline, but despite a brilliant season in 2012-13, he’s genuinely failed to live up to the hype. His performances for Die Mannschaft this summer, however, have shown just what he is capable of for the national team. Strong, direct, comfortable on the ball, excellent at taking players on and constantly trying to find ways into the box and to create space for others, Draxler was one of the difference makers in a system of methodical possession/build up that saw Germany fall short of the mark for most of the tournament, while scoring a goal and adding an assist in the process. Though the likes of Julian Brandt and Timo Werner are sure to improve, the left side of Germany’s attack is Draxler’s place to lose – if this summer is anything to go by, he’s not going to give it up easily.
His inclusion in Joachim Low’s 23-man squad this summer was purely on merit – Kimmich’s rise and development this season under now former Bayern manager Pep Guardiola was rather astonishing. What perhaps is even more impressive, however, is that no one expected Kimmich to shine as brightly as he did slotting into the right-back role. Though he was deployed as a holding midfielder and center-back under Pep, Kimmich could easily have fooled everyone into thinking that he was a natural on the right side of the back four. His technical ability has always been lauded, but his intelligence, positional awareness and quality support provided for the German attack are all aspects that they have been missing since the great Philipp Lahm hung up his boots. Many have now deemed him his heir apparent, and while it may be just a little too soon to make such a statement, it has to be said that the similarities are evident and glaring. Simply put, he was one of Germany’s best players overall, and despite his costly error in the semi-final against France, for me he was one of the best young players overall and arguably the best right-back this summer.
Though he only featured in two of Hungary’s four matches this summer, the energizer bunny from Werder Bremen was absolutely crucial to Hungary’s shock performances in France that included them topping Group F after no one gave them a hope or a prayer pre-tournament. His energy was his most impressive attribute, but he exhibited a very solid direct approach and ability to pick out the right pass or make an effective run on the ball at many of the right times, and this coming from a player who has barely featured for his employers at club level. His impressive showings in camp convinced Bernd Storck to take a gamble on him, and his importance to the side would become immense – their three goals surrendered to Portugal and 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Belgium in the round of 16 so happened to be the two matches he missed out on through injury. Without him, Hungary’s midfield just was not the same, and his little-engine-that-could effort and attitude was sorely missed. He’ll undoubtedly be an important piece of the puzzle as Storck has earmarked routine tournament qualification here on out for the Magyars.
Though Poland advanced to the quarterfinals and fought all the way to penalties for the second consecutive match, there can still be a feeling of justifiable disappointment surrounding a team who dazzled in qualification and lead in goal scoring. Robert Lewandowski was an absolute shadow of himself, but despite the Bayern Munich hitman misfiring, his center forward in crime, Ajax’s Arkadiusz Milik, had a good summer. I will be the first to admit that the Amsterdam-based number nine should have registered a further two or three goals rather than just ending on the one, as indeed he was wasteful with his chances, but it was his overall level of play that sees him included here. He was quite good in his understanding of running into the correct attacking channels, and he certainly tried to create chances for others when he was able. Nerves certainly got the best of him when it came to his inability to convert, but his presence was felt in the attacking third and Poland utilized his ability’s through the middle well – it’s no surprise that de Godenzonen technical director and club icon Marc Overmars has stated that nothing short of a monumental bid would pry him away from the capital.
Highly touted during his time in Lorient and coming off the back of a high profile move to Thomas Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund, Raphael Guerreiro did his utmost to impress this summer. On the back of his performances, one could easily argue that he was one of the best players of the entire tournament, and certainly the best left-back. Quick both on and off the ball, boasting an incredible engine which he put on display for all to see in the final against France and an excellent source of attacking creativity and service down the left flank, Guerreiro’s stock has surely risen tenfold over the last month. Pre-tournament it was a tossup between him and Eliseu, but Portugal were so much more effective as a defensive unit and far more dangerous in the attacking third with Guerreiro in the XI, a fact which soon made him the unquestionable starter on the left side of the defense. His guarantee of starting at least 80% of the matches for Dortmund this coming season is a fact that must have supporters of Die Schwarzgelben chomping at the bit to see him in action next season. We could very easily be looking at one of the best left backs in Europe in the making over the next few seasons.
Though he only started in three of Portugal’s seven matches in their march to being crowned European Champions, the 18-year old prodigy was one of the few bright spots in a side who often times struggled to put in the performances worthy of a champion. Not slated to be a starter when the tournament began, his appearances off the bench, which featured power, pace, sound technical ability and a workman-like approach, brought a different approach to Portugal, but one that coach Fernando Santos clearly approved of. His approach as manager, from the beginning of his tenure, was defensive solidarity and structure, despite featuring a team with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. It’s to this end that Sanches would end up being a key piece to the puzzle that saw Portugal navigate the knockout stage past a very gifted Croatia, dark horse Poland, surprise package Wales and hosts France. Though I personally felt the fee shelled out by Bayern to acquire him from Benfica was grossly over the top, his offerings this summer gave a little bit of evidence as to what we could expect to see from him down the line – it’s very possible and highly likely that he will be the keystone which Portugal build around in the coming years.
Written by Andrew Thompson