Five Young Players to Watch Out For at Euro 2020

Ahead of this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament, Jack Donnelly profiles five of the competition’s best young players that may otherwise have flown under the radar.

After a year’s delay, the footballing community can rejoice as international football returns to our screens this summer, with Euro 2020 taking place across the continent. Supporters can get behind their country at a major tournament for the first time since 2018 or, in some cases, even longer.

Euros gone by have seen some of the most talented youngsters in world football burst forward into the spotlight – think Renato Sanches in 2016, who won the inaugural Young Player of the Tournament award. Some of the planet’s best young talents are set to shine for their countries this summer, but this article will avoid providing details on the likes of Phil Foden or Kylian Mbappé. Instead, I’ll be looking away from the most obvious candidates to try and highlight some players that might not be so familiar to many of us here in the United Kingdom.

Alexander Isak – Sweden

Alexander Isak averaged a goal every other game in La Liga this season and is set to fill Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s shoes for Sweden this summer.
(Photo Credit – Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images)

Granted, I am absolutely not the first writer to make a glittering prediction about Real Sociedad’s Swedish striker. In reality, the amount of whispers surrounding Isak this summer should stand to convey his obvious quality and why he could announce himself on the world stage at Euro 2020.

The 21-year-old has garnered increased attention ahead of the tournament, thanks in no small part to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s absence from the squad due to a knee injury. Shorter in stature than Ibrahimovic, Isak shares the veteran’s affinity for flair and trickery, and is more than comfortable taking on defenders, ranking in the 69th percentile for La Liga strikers in dribbles completed. More crucially, however, is Isak’s consistency for finding the back of the net. He scored 17 goals in 34 league appearances, averaging a goal every second game, three shots per match and ranking in the 96th percentile for shots on target per 90.

Despite not having the greatest aerial ability, Isak offers a fantastic out-ball for any Sweden counterattack, with the flair, technicality and finishing to complete a slick transition move. He’s got some big shoes to fill, but this one-time understudy has a fantastic opportunity to steal the limelight from Sweden’s leading man this summer.

Nuno Mendes – Portugal

At just 18, Nuno Mendes is the next big thing in Portuguese football and has the chance to show exactly why this summer. (Photo Credit – NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In my eyes, Portugal are one of the favourites heading into this summer’s tournament, with the defending champions having an objectively higher-quality squad than they did in 2016. While the usual stars will shine, I highly expect 18-year-old Nuno Mendes to turn heads this summer.

The promising full back is coming into this tournament off the back of his first full season in senior football and has played an integral part in Sporting CP’s first Primera Liga title since 2002. Playing as a left wingback in Ruben Amorim’s 3-4-3, Mendes’ athleticism and conditioning are highly impressive, leading to plenty of bursting runs up and down the left-hand side of the pitch. Averaging 1.7 tackles and 2.1 interceptions per 90, Mendes’ best attribute is his crossing, as he was able to regularly race past opposing full backs to deliver a powerful, whipped cross into the box for the likes of Pedro Gonçalves and Paulinho to meet. A 79.3% pass accuracy further details Mendes’ quality, as he looks to provide Cristiano Ronaldo with a slew of pinpoint crosses at Euro 2020.

By and large, Mendes is the next big thing in Portuguese football, and this tournament will give him a perfect opportunity to show exactly why.

Owen Wijndal – Netherlands

Wijndal has been a revelation for AZ Alkmaar, with the academy graduate playing every second of the 20/21 league campaign. (Photo Credit – Ed van de Pol/Soccrates via Getty Images)

From one talented left back to another, Owen Wijndal emerged from the AZ Alkmaar academy in 2016 as a 16-year-old and in five short years, the defender has made 100 appearances for the AZ first team, captained the side on a number of occasions and has cemented himself as his nation’s starting left back. Not bad for a 21- year old.

Passing ability is absolutely crucial in a modern fullback’s game and thankfully for Oranje fans, Wijndal has no trouble picking out a teammate. He ranks in the 95th percentile (among fullbacks) for his pass completion percentage, standing at a mightily impressive 86.6%. Wijndal registered six assists in the Eredivise this season, averaging 1.4 key passes per 90. There is no doubt that Wijndal will enter this summer’s tournament as Frank de Boer’s first choice left back – he’s started seven of Holland’s last eight games and has become accustomed to both the 4-3-3 and 5-3-2 systems that de Boer utilises.

Wijndal has a very bright future ahead of him and already has a couple of European giants sniffing around – Ronald Koeman seems keen on bringing his compatriot to Barcelona as a successor to Jordi Alba while, perhaps unsurprisingly, Ajax are also said to be interested. Given his fantastic ability, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see even more clubs sold on Wijndal throughout the summer.

Manuel Locatelli – Italy

Like Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo before him, Manuel Locatelli brings class and composure to Italy’s midfield.
(Photo Credit – Alessandro Sabattini via Getty Images)

Italy come into this summer’s tournament with hype, often being cited as the dark horses of Euro 2020. While there are no bona fide superstars in Roberto Mancini’s squad, the former Manchester City manager has Gli Azzuri working cohesively as a unit, with Sassuolo’s deep-lying playmaker, Manuel Locatelli, dictating the tempo in the middle of the park.

The 23-year-old enjoyed a fantastic Serie A campaign in the past year, finishing outside of the European places in the league table on a head-to-head basis alone. Like every midfield metronome, Locatelli’s passing game is exceptional – he ranks in the 97th percentile for both passes attempted and passes completed per 90, boasts an 88.3% pass completion rate and excels at moving the ball forward, ranking in the 98th percentile for passes into the final third (8.79/90) and progressive passes (7.58/90). Most typically found as part of a midfield duo in either a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3 system, Locatelli also takes up a good amount of defensive responsibility, averaging 2.4 tackles and 1.5 interceptions per 90.

Granted, Locatelli faces stiff competition to nail down a starting role in Italy’s midfield three, but should he accomplish it, the rest of Europe will have yet another cool and composed Italian playmaker to gawk at.

Pedri – Spain

The 18-year-old is the latest technically gifted young midfielder to don the blue and red of Barcelona and looks set for a highly successful career.
(Photo Credit – Eric Alonso via Getty Images)

The downfall of FC Barcelona has been well documented on ENRG Sport in the past year, with various articles and podcasts highlighting everything going wrong at the Camp Nou. Each piece has had one thing in common, however – an agreement that 18-year-old Pedri is the future for both club and country.

The youngster appeared in all but one of Barcelona’s league matches this season, making an incredibly positive impression on Ronald Koeman. While also comfortable as a left winger, Pedri thrives as an atypical Barça central midfielder, in that he excels at the simple stuff. Having grown up idolising the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, it’s little surprise to see Pedri rank in the 92nd percentile for short passes attempted (30.04/90) and completed (27.38/90). The midfielder is also incredibly cool under pressure, averaging 10.34 passes under pressure per 90, putting him in the 93rd percentile of attacking midfielders. Pedri doesn’t just sit back and dictate the tempo, however – he is constantly looking to move forward with the ball and ranks in the 99th (ninety-ninth) percentile for touches in the attacking third per 90 (35.49). Furthermore, he’s averaging almost three shot-creating actions per 90, proving how important he has been to Barcelona’s attack this season.

Stats can only convey so much though, but the truth is that Pedri is an exceptional talent and at just 18 years of age, he’s set for a magnificent career. Should he get the playing time at this summer’s tournament, the watchful eyes of football fans will be drawn to the Spaniard.

*Stats taken from WhoScored, Transfermarkt and FBref

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