With the 2020(?) European Championships beginning tomorrow, there’s no better time to preview which players will unexpectedly shine the brightest at this summer’s showcase. Everyone knows of Kylian Mbappe and Cristiano Ronaldo, but there are several others biding their time before jumping to claim wider recognition. But first, some context surrounding this year’s European adventure.
The pandemic-induced delay of the previous football season has necessitated that much of the football calendar be compressed and expedited to get back to regularly scheduled programming as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, the breakneck speed at which the 2020 and 2021 seasons were completed resulted in an increase in significant injuries to players who were forced to suit up more frequently while combatting a drastic reduction in rest time between matches.
As you’ll see, the aforementioned injuries have created vacuums to be filled, mostly by youngsters making their debuts on the international stage or players flying under-the-radar who currently find themselves outside of the purview of the continent’s monoliths.
A year can feel like an eternity in sports, and COVID was not necessarily gentle with aging veterans slumping further along in their physical decline and instead granted many young players an additional year to develop through regular first-team football who might not otherwise be considered for selection.
For many casual soccer fans whose interest in the sport is often circumstantial and fleeting, major international and continental tournaments are a way to discover rising stars who, for one reason or another, have not yet broken through the public consciousness.
In either case, there is a collection of talent eagerly awaiting the opportunity to grab centre stage and announce themselves to the world as the next generation’s household names, potentially sealing a lucrative transfer in the process.
For those entering the tournament without a team to root for, these five players should excite neutrals and bring some spice to what may at first glance be considered underwhelming fixtures.
1. Alexander Isak – Forward – Real Sociedad/Sweden
In the FIFA video game series Career Mode, once iconic players retire in-game, a player colloquially known as a “regen” is automatically created and placed within the league from which the initial player concluded their career. The “regen” hails from the same country as the retired player, and possess similar physical and technical attributes.
For a Swedish side used to relying on the incomparable Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the better part of 2 decades, Isak is as close to a Zlatan “regen” as you could hope for without cloning the man himself and the Swedish icon’s unfortunate injury has pushed Isak to the forefront of Tre Kronor’s attack.
To some, Isak’s imposing physical presence (he stands at a towering 6-foot-4) and professional demeanour conjures up an image of a more mature player, and it’s often difficult to remember that the Real Sociedad striker only just celebrated his 21st birthday.
Since his professional debut for AIK Stockholm at the age of 16, Isak has accumulated 140 appearances in all domestic and inter-continental competition posting 67 goal contributions (55 goals plus 12 assists) in the process.
In terms of comparables, the 17 non-penalty goals Isak scored in Spain’s La Liga this season ranked 5th behind Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema, Youssef En-Nesyri, and Luis Suarez. Outside of En-Nesyri (who’s a promising talent in his own right) his peers include three of the past decade’s most prolific attackers. Heady company, and a credit to Isak’s ability to carve out dangerous chances in front of goal.
In fact, Isak ranked among the top quartile of forwards in Europe’s top five leagues in terms of his goals and shots taken per 90 minutes, a testament to the raw talent he has already displayed.
Despite his lumbering frame, Isak is anything but a prototypical target man. He is deceptively quick and rarely hesitates to take on defenders with his dribbling, completing 1.33 dribbles per 90 minutes this season.
In terms of link up play, Isak completed 77 percent of his short and medium passes in all competitions this season, meaning he won’t necessarily turn into a liability if Sweden require more involved playmaking contribution from him at some point in the tournament.
Although football history is littered with hundreds of young stars who fizzled out after bursting onto the international scene, Isak appears poised to take the next step and find success at a larger club with rumours of potential moves to Barcelona and Arsenal already springing up following his superb 2021 campaign.
Sweden finished the EURO 2020 qualifying campaign with the 7th most goals scored among all competing nations and Isak contributed 3 of their 23 tallies mostly in a substitute role, but scored at an incredible rate of nearly 1 goal per 90 minutes (0.81).
For reference, Messi scored 0.89 goals per 90 minutes in La Liga play this season. While Isak’s international output came in a very small sample, he clearly possess the talent to turn a game on its head and will look to link up with RB Leipzig’s all-action midfielder Emil Forsberg and Juventus starlet Dejan Kulusevski.
With their group consisting of a newly rebuilt Spanish side counting on young, but supremely gifted players, an always defensively stout Poland led by arguably the world’s prolific striker in Robert Lewandowski, and the tricky Slovakians, Isak will have to replicate his hot domestic and brief international form for Sweden to move on to the knockout stages.
2. Nikola Vlasic – Attacking Midfielder – CSKA Moscow/Croatia
Vlasic is another entry in a long line of technically gifted midfielders bred by Croatia, and the 23-year-old looks poised to make his mark at this summer’s showcase.
With national team mainstay Ivan Rakitic retiring from international duty shortly after Croatia’s second place finish at the 2018 World Cup, Vlasic was gifted a starting spot alongside 2018 Ballon D’Or Winner Luka Modric, and has become an integral conductor of the Vatreni’s attacking intentions.
Vlasic parlayed impressive performances in Croatia’s First Division as a teenager into a surprise move to Everton but struggled to find consistent playing time in his preferred position. After a single season in the Premier League, he swapped the blue of Merseyside for CSKA Moscow in the hopes of fighting for an expanded role and furthering his development at a level more appropriate for the early stages of his career.
In his two most seasons since arriving in Russia, Vlasic has been among the league leaders in goals and assists tallying 23 goals and 10 assists in 56 appearances, with many of Europe’s top clubs taking note of his identity as a chance generating threat and aggressive dribbler capable of evading even the most relentless of opponent pressing schemes.
The 2021 season saw Vlasic complete over 4 progressive carries per 90 minutes, defined as carries which move the ball at least 5 yards closer to the opponent’s goal (while past the halfway line) or into the penalty box.
Internationally, Vlasic’s dynamism has rescued Croatia from embarrassment in the qualifying stages on occasion, with his slaloming runs and ability to strike the ball from distance offering a different dynamic to a Croatian attack that can sometimes become stagnant and too often rely on hammering crosses into the opponent’s penalty area in spite of its enviable collection of midfield talent.
As Vlasic is only slightly above average in terms of his defensive impact and ability to play cutting through balls, Croatia can depend on their hardened veterans in Modric and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic to pick up the slack allowing Vlasic to focus on making up for their deficinecies in ball progression via dribbling and penetrating the opponent’s penalty area.
With tournament play notorious for drawing out frustrating defensive strategies which revolve around conservative low-blocks with most of a team’s attackers behind the ball, this skill will be crucial in unlocking opposing defences.
With much of the core of Croatia’s World Cup runners-up squad moving out of their prime, including the 35-year-old Modric, Vlasic will be called upon by coach Zlatko Dalic to provide attacking verve and infectious energy as the they seek to replicate their form from 3 years ago.
If he succeeds, Croatia can once again be considered a legitimate dark horse at an international tournament and may precipitate Vlasic’s return to a more prominent league in Europe.
3. Adam Hlozek – Forward – Sparta Prague/Czech Republic
In a group headlined by two of the previous World Cup’s four semi-finalists in England and Croatia, the Czech Republic will be hard pressed to advance to the knockout stage of the competition.
While the squad is anchored by the duo of Hoffenheim’s Pavel Kaderabek and West Ham’s midfield behemoth Tomas Soucek who form its defensive spine, the Czech’s lack offensive impetus and will have to hope they can collectively muster up enough of an attack to challenge the group favourites.
That’s where Hlozek can shine.
Despite being only 18 years old and featuring in just over half of the season’s fixtures due to injury, Hlozek eviscerated the Czech First League while leading Sparta Prague to 2nd place in the division.
The Czech phenom tied or outright held the lead for virtually every one of the competition’s offensive categories including goals (15), goals plus assists (22), and their corresponding per 90 minute rates.
Just to further highlight how ridiculous his production was in comparison to his peers, Hlozek’s 1.31 goals and assists per 90 was 0.34 higher than the next best outfielder, the same difference between 2nd and 10th place.
Even while often operating at the peak of his team’s attack, Hlozek frequently carries the ball into critical areas through his agile dribbling, and is unafraid of firing on goal whenever possible. He has a knack of popping up in opportune positions in and around the box and the ability to capitalize on said chances.
His capacity as an offensive threat is only heightened when he is able to isolate his defender and take him on directly. Call it the Hlozek Torture Chamber, if you will. When he locates the net, there is very little a defender can do to prevent him from bursting forward towards goal.
Despite playing most of his minutes at striker, Hlozek seemingly has free license to roam anywhere along the team’s front line and will look to lead a rapid counter-attack whenever the Czech’s are able to regain possession.
It may be horribly unfair and unreasonable to expect an 18-year-old to shoulder the bulk of responsibility for creating chances and orchestrating his nation’s attack, increasingly younger and younger players are confidently stepping into professional sides, and Renato Sanches’ poised performance as a teenager in the middle of Portugal’s midfield at this very tournament 5 years ago suggests that age is but a number if you genuinely possess the skill and ability to dictate a match.
Hlozek’s dominance in his domestic exploits suggests that he’s prepared for a new challenge, and a salivating performance at EURO 2020 will only cause his price tag to balloon even further in the eyes of Europe’s elite. Realistically, a step up to a mid-table side where he could accumulate a greater number of minutes would be more beneficial to his development.
If you can find time to catch one of the Czech’s matches, make sure that you’re stapled to your seat. You might just witness the ascent of one of the sport’s next superstars.
4. Eljif Elmas – Midfielder – Napoli/North Macedonia
While many have bemoaned the European Championships recent expansion from 16 to 24 teams, the new format has undoubtedly offered smaller nations a greater opportunity to share the stage with the continent’s traditional superpowers.
North Macedonia is one such country, with the miniscule nation of just over two million people punching their ticket to EURO 2020 on the back of national hero Goran Pandev, whose goal in a qualifying playoff final booked Macedonia’s place in a major tournament for the first time in their independent history.
Eljif Elmas is the key component of a technically proficient Macedonian midfield, with the 21-year-old pacing those around him like a metronome, combining with the sly Enis Bardhi, and charging forward himself when the opportunity for an attack presents itself.
His skillful ball control and technical dribbling allows him to move around the pitch with ease, and to retain possession while seeking out a more preferable avenue of attack.
For his club team Napoli, Elmas is less of an important piece as he frequently makes appearances off of the bench. When he does play, his preference is to maintain and recycle possession although he is not shy to test opposing defences with his creative passing or slippery movement around the box.
He is also an underrated attacking talent as is demonstrated by his 4 goals during EURO 2020 qualifying, which was enough to lead Macedonia in that department.
In fact, it was Elmas last minute goal in World Cup qualifying which sprung Macedonia towards capturing one of the most famous victories in the country’s history, a 2-1 victory over Germany.
He is somewhat limited in his tackling and defensive awareness which likely means that he will be positioned higher up the pitch for this tournament, operating as the offensive fulcrum for the European minnows. As Elmas goes, so does Macedonia.
They will be thrown into a struggle with Ukraine and Austria for the 2nd and 3rd places in a group headed by the Netherlands who are returning to their first major tournamnent in over half a decade, and if they are to make good on their status as the tournament darlings, Elmas will have to exert his influence on their fixtures from the outset.
5. Jonas Wind – Forward – Copenhagen/Denmark
With each successive tournament, several tournament dark horses lead bandwagons out of the stable, with their triumphs often sparking cries of “I told you so” across countless bars, living rooms, and patios.
Ahead of EURO 2020, Denmark has quietly taken that mantle and if everything goes right, their exploits this summer could resemble their inaugural bow at this same tournament 29 years ago where geopolitical conflict in Yugoslavia forced the crumbling state’s withdrawal, and set the stage for their Danish replacements to unexpectedly win the competition outright.
While Inter Milan’s Christian Eriksen will take his regular place at the heart of the Danish attack, the spot ahead of him has yet to be assigned to various applicants.
As national team regulars in Yusuf Poulsen, Kasper Dolberg and Martin Braithwaite struggling for form, there is a strained desire for more consistent attacking in the Danish camp.
The 22-year-old Dane took a definitive step domestically this season scoring 15 goals in 28 appearances for Copenhagen, which was tied for 2nd in the Danish first division.
Wind was also a shot generating machine this season, with his 3.04 shots per 90 minutes ranking 3rd in the Danish Superliga. If Wind can develop a harmonious relationship with Eriksen at this tournament, he should find it relatively easy to find space to fire numerous attempts on goal and challenge keepers.
At 6-foot-2, Wind is a welcome threat in the air and will be an additional target for Eriksen and Andreas Skov Olsen to aim for in the box making him more of a versatile presence in Denmark’s tactical setup.
Wind is a multifaceted attacker and his ability as a playmaker should not be understated as he finished with 8 assists, good for fourth in the entire league. Denmark boasts several intriguing attacking options around him, meaning it will be imperative for Wind to find teammates when under pressure around opposing penalty areas and his domestic performance suggests that is a skill he can flaunt this summer.
Although Wind is relatively green at the national level (7 caps for Denmark thus far), he’s potted 3 goals in his limited appearances at a rate of 0.8 goals every 90 minutes, a blistering pace to be sure, but one that will undoubtedly cool down as he faces stronger competition.
With a sturdy central spine of Kasper Schmeichel, Andreas Christensen and Eriksen, Wind would fit seamlessly into a team capable of upsetting the biggest sides through dedicated defending and underrated ability to create chances.
If he can break into the starting eleven and carry his domestic form onto the continental stage, Denmark can potentially recreate their tournament magic from nearly three decades prior.
Honourable Mentions: Orkun Kokcu – Turkey, Manuel Locatelli – Italy, Dani Olmo – Spain
Data courtesy of Football Reference and StatsBomb. Main image of Cristiano Ronaldo from Francisco Leong/AFP.