Kaustubh Pandey writes about 8 young talents to watch out for at the upcoming U21 Euros in Poland.
Every single player that the world treats as a ‘demigod’ has his roots in junior tournaments where there was little recognition to be earned, yet a lot to win. Be it Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, all the European greats have made their presence felt in the junior tournaments of the continent. And that’s when the role of the Under-21 Euros comes into play.
The tournament has long been treated the breeding ground for youngsters across Europe and when the 21st edition of it comes to Poland later this June, all eyes will be on players who already been dubbed as the ‘future stars’. It won’t be a surprise to see a lot of them shine, but we could be in for a surprise to see which players end up capturing the attention of the fans.
And when the tournament kicks off on the 16th of June in the South Central Polish city of Kielce, one can well expect a treat. And we run the rule over some of the players to watch out for in the upcoming Under-21 Euros. Remember, the list could be a colossal one, but here are some interesting inclusions.
Roberto Gagliardini: Italy
When Inter Milan signed Roberto Gagliardini from Atalanta on a short-term loan deal, things were expected from the Italian. Despite having spent only five months at the San Siro from January, Gagliardini has impressed in the heart of the park for the Nerazzurri.
So much so that the 23-year-old earned himself a call-up for Giampiero Ventura’s Italian national side back in March. While, it’s certainly undoubted that Gagliardini’s breakout campaign has come a bit late for an average Italian starlet, but he has begun to make an impression for club and country alike. The fact that he made his debut for the Italian Under-21 outfit at the age of 21 proves that he can well be dubbed as a late bloomer. But it doesn’t mean that he’s someone worth underestimating.
A central midfielder by trade, Gagliardini’s improvement since last season has increased his reputation not just in Italy, but in Europe too. A hard-working and dynamic midfielder, he did come on to replace Daniele de Rossi during his Italy debut, but isn’t as static a midfielder as the Roma skipper. He knows how to contribute in both aspects of play and thrives in a three man midfield, when the onus isn’t just on him.
And his ability to grab hold of games by the scruff of their neck and work-ethic would be very important for Italy, when they head to Poland.
Jesus Vallejo: Spain
Rather unexpectedly during the 2016-17 campaign, Jesus Vallejo established himself as one of the best young defenders in Europe. The Spaniard impressed at Eintracht Frankfurt, as he spent a season-long loan spell at the Commerzbank Arena a season after a successful spell at Real Zaragoza. The 20 league appearances that he made for his former club from central Spain didn’t exactly help him in making a name for himself, but Frankfurt allowed him the platform to excel after his current club Real Madrid hardly promised that.
Vallejo made 25 appearances for Niko Kovac’s men in red and black and became a vital part of the backline, partnering with the experienced David Abraham at centre-back. A tad inconsistent but capable of dominating games and bullying opposition forwards, Vallejo’s impressive start to the campaign coincided with Frankfurt’s rise to as high as third in the Bundesliga and although, the Eagles finished 11th when the campaign ended, Vallejo never stopped impressing.
A composed figure at the back, the Real Madrid man could well witness a breakout into the Los Blancos first team setup next season. He relies more on positioning and his passing traits than tackling, but can well hold the tag of being a cultured defender.
And his imposing figure at the back could mean a lot for the junior La Roja, who can well be dubbed as pre-tournament favorites to triumph. It’d be fair to say that if Vallejo prospers, Spain will too.
Ruben Semedo: Portugal
Arguably one of the most sought after young defenders in Europe right now, Ruben Semedo has witnessed a rise to prominence at Sporting Lisbon that few had expected. Now 23, it does seem as if Semedo’s breakout time period has come at the right time, but big clubs were after the Portuguese starlet much before he attracted the attention of Manchester United and later confirmed a transfer to Villarreal himself.
Having previously drawn links with Rafa Benitez’s newly promoted Newcastle as well, Semedo has sealed a move to the Yellow Submarines for a €14 million fee and is likely to slot straight into the first team setup with Matteo Musacchio offloaded to AC Milan. That, in itself would be enough to prove the quality that this defender has.
Capable of playing right-back and in the central midfield as well, Semedo made 30 appearances for Sporting in the 2016-17 campaign and become a vital part of their repertoire. His consistent usage at centre-back helps him make full usage of his skill-set. Semedo is tall, strong and quick off the ball. And since he originally was a right back by trade, he has pace and awareness on the ball as well. The way he has adapted to the centre-back role is likely to define his career, if not just the Under-21 Euros.
Semedo made an average of 1.8 tackles per game last season, winning 2.6 interceptions. He’s got the scrupulous knack for being a fighter, which does let him down sometimes, but is an important aspect of his style of play. He did get sent off twice this past season, but it’s the hunger and urgency about him that makes him special.
And with the limelight likely to be on him, Rui Jorge’s men from Iberia would rely on him to a certain extent.
Mijat Gacinovic: Serbia
Probably the most least known player in the list, Mijat Gacinovic is the kind of a player who hasn’t quite enjoyed a breakout yet, but would certainly do so if the tournament goes well for the 22-year-old. He isn’t a glorified star, but his rise through the ranks at Eintracht Frankfurt suggests that something big could well be on the cards.
Having already made a single appearance back in March for the senior Serbian side, Gacinovic enjoyed a decent campaign under Niko Kovac and his performances were one of the reasons for the side’s rise to as high as third in the table early on. He did show signs of inconsistencies, but he’s got the work-ethic to dig out good performances from games that you would expect him to struggle in.
Versatility is another important feature of Gacinovic’s playing style and the former Vojvodina man played not just in the central midfield area, but also played on the right and the left flank as well. He wouldn’t do anything too extraordinary or special, but would always put in a shift for the team when needed. That, in itself, makes him a very good player. He does like to take defenders and beat them in wide areas, making him a threat going forward.
He won 1.7 tackles per game in the 2016-17 season, scoring four goals and that hunger and drive would come in very handy for Serbia in the tournament.
Karol Linetty: Poland
The host nation is likely to have a say in how the tournament goes and who goes far and Karol Linetty’s performances will have a bearing on how well Poland do. The central midfielder has already made a mark in the senior Polish side and the onus will be on him to influence games for the Under-21s outfit.
The 22-year-old made 35 starts for Sampdoria in the recently concluded Serie A and was one of their better performers alongside Luis Muriel, Patrik Schick and Lucas Torreira. He did score once and assisted four times, but he is adept in more than just the tangible aspects of the play. He’s a typical central midfield player, who contributes equally to defense and attack. It would be fair to say that he’s a jack of both the trades, but a master of none. The fact that he won 3 tackles per game last season suggests he could well act as the midfield engine and act as the driving force for the team.
Being probably the most recognizable figure in the side, Linetty would be tasked with doing what he usually does- contributing to both defense and attack.
Patrik Schick: Czech Republic
Another one of those Sampdoria stars who shone during the campaign, Patrik Schick turned out to be one of Serie A’s best youngsters. Now close being a Juventus player, the Czech Republic striker was on the radar of a host of big clubs including Inter Milan, Tottenham and Chelsea as well.
The 21-year-old enjoyed an impressive breakout campaign under Marco Giampaolo this season, scoring 13 times in all competitions and linking up well with Luis Muriel up front. The striker has been playing for his nation since he was as young as 15, climbing up the junior sides to have finally represented the senior side last year. He has already scored once for the senior side, making four appearances.
He’s blessed with a wonderful pair of feet and excels in the technical aspect of the game, which he uses to impressive effect to get over a slight lack of pace. That though, doesn’t mean that he lacks pace. The striker does have pace, but it isn’t as devastating as some of his Serie A counterparts like Felipe Anderson or Keita Balde Diao. It’s his technical ability that stands out and he makes wonderful use of it to go past players as if they aren’t there.
It’s his record for the Under-21 side that stands out. And that’s the reason why he could prove to be a vital cog in Czech Republic’s wheel.
Jack Stephens: England
He may not be the most well-known player in the England side right now, but Southampton’s Jack Stephens could enhance his reputation for being a quality defender or possibly attract some interest as well, if he does well in the Euros.
The 2016-17 campaign saw Stephens break into the Saints first team to good effect, replacing the injured Virgil van Dijk to near perfection. The Dutchman was effectively ruled out till the end of the season back in January and with Jose Fonte sold to West Ham, the onus fell on the 23-year-old Stephens to take charge of the backline along with Maya Yoshida. And he excelled.
He oozes composure and his six foot tall physique allows him to dominate games from the back. Capable of playing right back as well, Stephens can also act as a ball-playing defender who can start off attacks. He won 1.7 aerial duels per game since January in the Premier League, making 4.6 clearances too. His tackling and interception rate doesn’t jump out from the list, but it’s his positioning that stands out.
Having made seven appearances for the Under-21s already since 2015, Stephens could use the experience of acting as a vital cog in Aidy Boothroyd’s and thereby, cement a spot in the Southampton side for the next season with Van Dijk very likely to be on his way out. And being at a club like Southampton, it’s always likely to witness a big club swoop in and splash the cash on him. And the tournament will provide Stephens with a massive opportunity to prove his mettle on the big stage.
Nadiem Amiri: Germany
Not having a Germany player in the list would be an injustice to the number of exciting prospects that the nation currently boasts of. Nadiem Amiri is only one of the whole host of stars that Germany currently have at their disposal and the 20-year-old will be out to impress a lot of onlookers.
Coming into the tournament at the back of an impressive domestic campaign, Amiri was one of those lesser known stars who guided Hoffenheim to a fourth-placed finish in the Bundesliga and slotted into Julian Nagelsmann’s system perfectly. He’s an attacking midfield player by trade, but can also play on either flank. This season though, he was used as a central midfielder in Nagelsmann’s innovative 3-4-2-1 shape.
Amiri, whose roots trace back to Afghanistan, scored twice and assisted four times in the Bundesliga for the club from Sinsheim. While the tally isn’t overly impressive, but Hoffenheim happen to be a side that press high up the pitch in a structured way and that’s when Amiri’s energy came in handy.
Having made his Under-21s debut in March of last year, Amiri will look to earn a call-up from the senior national side, with Joachim Low now evidently giving a chance to a lot of youngsters. The team that has been selected for the Confederations Cup is a very young one and while Amiri would be slightly disappointed with not having earned a call-up for that, a good tournament in Poland can help him a lot in that aspect.
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