The 2017 European U21 Championships are due to kick off this week with Poland as the hosts. As with every iteration of this tournament over the course of the last two decades, every squad involved is littered with potential first team players with the prize of graduation to the senior squads looming on the horizon.
These Championships tend to act almost as a finishing school in the long process of youth development, with the best performers routinely going on to shine for their club teams. If we cast our minds back to the 2015 tournament then it was the first real exposure to the likes of Bernardo Silva, Raphael Guerreiro and William Carvalho of Portugal while a Swedish defender named Victor Lindelof was named in the Team of the Tournament. This week has seen Lindelof signed for significant money by Manchester United.
Scouts from all of the big sides of Europe are likely to be out in force for this tournament and there are a number of players named in their respective squads who are already well known with the likes of Saul Niguez and Marco Asensio representing Spain and Renato Sanches representing Portugal. I have looked at the squad lists and picked five players that I think will have a significant impact at the tournament that are not yet household names.
In no particular order the players that I have picked out are;
1.) John Swift, 21, Reading, England
John Swift was a relatively low-key signing for Championship side Reading when they picked the young midfielder up from Chelsea on a three-year contract. Swift had enjoyed a successful spell on loan at Brentford before being deemed surplus to requirements by his parent club.
Chelsea’s loss could very much be Reading’s gain. Swift is an attacking midfielder capable of playing centrally or on either flank and whilst he does not possess outstanding pace, he is an intelligent footballer with the capacity to link in with team mates in the final third.
As a youngster at Chelsea, Swift was often compared to Frank Lampard as he showed the same ability to arrive late in the penalty area as the ex-England international did.
Here we see Swift wide on the left-hand side playing in a match against Norwich City. As stated above he does not possess significant pace and is less likely to attack a defender down the outside.
Instead, he is extremely adept at shifting the ball inside to find an angle to cross the ball accurately. In this sense, he is reminiscent of David Beckham with the technique used to create space and cross the ball.
Once again Swift produces an accurate cross into the penalty area for a chance on goal.
Once again we see Swift out on the left-hand side of the field. As he collects possession of the ball he uses quick feet to beat two defensive players in quick succession.
After beating two opponents Swift has created an opportunity to isolate the defensive line and attack inside. In moving inside with the ball he creates an angle and an opportunity to reverse the ball back out to the wide area where he has a teammate isolated against the wide defender.
2.) Patrick Schick, 21, Sampdoria, Czech Republic
Patrick Schick has enjoyed an incredible season in Serie A with Sampdoria having originally started the season as a backup.
His performances when coming off the bench were such that he soon forced his way in to the first team. Comparisons when scouting young footballers tend to be unhelpful and so far in his young career he has been compared to the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Denis Bergkamp in equal measure. Whilst such comparisons are often unhelpful in the development of a young player he does possess the technique to at least make the comparisons reasonable.
This tournament could well see the wider world become aware of the talent that the young Czech forward possesses, and the likes of Juventus are already known to be extremely interested in securing the services of the striker.
The goal that Denis Bergkamp scored for Arsenal against Newcastle back in 2002 has gone down in footballing folklore. When receiving possession of the ball at the edge of the penalty area in a central position he flicked the ball with the outside of his foot round the corner of his marker, before darting round the opposite side and collecting the ball before finishing expertly.
Here we see Schick performing a similar piece of technique as Sampdoria transition quickly into the attacking phase. When the ball is played into the central position Schick is initially off balance but turns and flicks the ball down the outside of the defender.
The key, however, comes with the composure that the striker then shows to advance on goal and finish calmly.
In this example we see Schick interlinking play deeper in the opponents half as he collects possession before playing out into the wide area.
Unlike most strikers in this position Schick then does not choose to advance immediately into the opponent’s box and he recognises that the free space is at the edge of the penalty area. This displays his spatial awareness and positional sense. When the ball does eventually find its way out to the edge of the area we see Schick finish confidently in to the top corner giving the goalkeeper no chance.
He displays a ruthless streak in front of goal.
3.) Andrea Conti, 23, Atalanta, Italy
Andrea Conti comes into the tournament on the back of a season when he was arguably one of the best full-backs in European football and having made his debut for the Italian senior side.
Normally Conti plays as a right back for his club side but he has featured on the left at times as well displaying the versatility to play equally well on either side. His playing style however also suggests that there is a chance that in the future he will move in to the centre either in defence or midfield.
It is widely reported that AC Milan see Conti as one of the main components of their summer rebuilding and it is highly unlikely that we will see the young full back in Bergamo next season.
In terms of playing style Conti has everything that you are looking for in a modern full back. From a willingness and capacity to defend in tight areas to the ability to push forward and lay on crosses or even score himself. There is little that he can’t do on the pitch.
Here we see Conti working in the defensive phase. As the opposition wide player takes possession and looks to burst round the outside of the defensive line it initially seems as though he has the pace to get in behind the Atalanta defence.
Instead, we see Conti burst back to not only keep pace with the attacker but execute a perfectly timed sliding tackle to dispossess the man on the ball and put the ball out for a corner.
Here we seen an example of Conti collecting possession of the ball out in the wide area before having the vision and technique to split the opposing defensive lines with a through pass for the midfield player to run on to.
Many fullbacks in this position would simply look to connect with the player in the wide area or turn the ball inside choosing the safe option.
Instead we see Conti pause in possession of the ball and allow the play to develop further in front of him. As the option for the pass comes open he slips the ball through in to the path of Kessie who has made a forward run.
4.) Nadiem Amiri, 20, Hoffenheim, Germany
Nadiem Amiri is something of a unique case as a player with an Afghan passport who has not only the drive but the talent to perform at the highest level. That said he will not be representing the country of his parents and will instead throw in his international lot with his adopted homeland Germany.
Amiri is a multi-faceted young player with the capacity to play anywhere across the final third of the pitch or even as a deeper controlling midfielder as part of a double pivot in midfield. He possesses not only the technique necessary to play in the Bundesliga but also the physical build to provide a difficult issue for opposing sides to solve.
This past season Amiri has undoubtedly been helped by the presence of Hoffenheim’s fantastic young coach Julian Naglesmann whose brand of positional play utilised the young attacking midfielder strengths and allowed him to flourish in the domestic season.
It remains to be seen whether Hoffenheim can hold on to Amiri for the long term but it seems likely he will still be at the club next season.
Here we see Amiri moving into the wide right area to collect possession of the ball.
He is arguably at his most dangerous playing from a central starting position with the ability to drift out in to wide areas to make the most of spaces that open up in the final third.
As the takes the ball wide here we see his physical power as he beats the defender on the inside and bursts in to space. The key thing here however is that he does not panic when he gets passed the first defender. Instead he pauses and assesses the situation before cutting the ball back for a teammate who should do a lot better with the chance.
This time Amiri picks up the ball on the left-hand side of the final third.
As he gets possession he is tight to the touchline and the opposition have shifted their block to the strong side to cut down on the space that Amiri has to attack.
Instead of driving with the ball on his own or looking to play a short ball in to pressure we see Amiri read the movement in front of him and slip a pass through the lines of defensive organisation for a teammate making a deep run in to the penalty area.
5.) Joao Carvalho. 20, Benfica, Portugal
Joao Carvalho is the latest in a long line of promising attacking players who have been developed in the youth academy of Benfica of Portugal.
Possessing the vision and technique to unlock even the tightest defences it seems only a matter of time before Carvalho makes a significant impact at senior level for both club and country.
Capable of playing wide on the left or in the centre Carvalho is a skilful player with great vision and awareness. He spent the end of last season on loan at Vitoria Setubal in the Portuguese top flight where he was exposed to first team football.
Here we see Carvalho collect the ball in the left sided half space with little in the way of immediate pressure on the ball.
The key is the technique with which he plays the through ball. With the striker looking to make a run in front of his man and behind the other central defender, we see Carvalho shaping as if to play the ball to the far side of the penalty area.
Instead, he wraps his foot around the ball and plays the ball into the path of the striker as he makes his run across into the penalty area.
Here we see the young attacking midfielder look to take possession of the ball and drive at the defence himself.
As he collects the ball wide in his own half he is isolated against the first defender and easily beats him with a relatively simple trick. The key then is that Carvalho does not hesitate and drives in towards the heart of the opposition defence.
A second defender moves across to make the challenge and again we see Carvalho immediately engage the defender and burst past the defensive player creating a chance on goal.
All that was missing, in the end, was the finish as the ball was eventually put wide.
I have identified five players that in my opinion should shine at this tournament although in truth there are at least a dozen more that I could have selected for this piece.
The European U21 Championships are always one of the best to watch for those that are interested in spotting and watching the ‘next big thing’ in football. Two years ago a certain Bernardo Silva shone for Portugal and this summer has seen him make a big-money move to English football with Manchester City. It remains to be seen who the best player this time around will be but it should be interesting finding out.