The Best XI of the Euro 2020 Group Stage

Featured

Wednesday’s enthralling conclusion to EURO 2020’s group stage capped off a collection of impressive individual and team performances, some more expected than others, and fashioned new national heroes to praise and exalt.

Unheralded players broke onto the international stage and singlehandedly dragged their team to respectability, icons of the sport continued to proclaim their excellence, and some surprising figures caused consternation for more historically acclaimed opponents, all of which offered up a long list of footballers worthy of recognition.

However, a few caveats should be noted before I list my team of the group stage.

To be eligible for the starting eleven and honourable mentions, the players had to have played at least 2.0 full 90 minutes (180 mins total) or what would generally be 2 out of the three possible group stage matches.

This yardstick was chosen to recognize those who had a claim to most if not all of the overall success of their team rather than someone who had a sparkling performance in a single game or half of play.

This criteria unfortunately penalized players who gave impeccable performances but were recovering from injuries (Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, Italy’s Marco Veratti) and those teams who locked up their place in the knockout stage ahead of their third match (Italy and Belgium primarily) and could afford to rest their key contributors. 

If these teams progress further in the tournament, most of the snubs will likely play key roles and would be chosen in my final team of the tournament.

Lastly, some of these players may not have ranked highly in the traditional counting stats such as goals, assists or clean sheets, as these do not account for team and opponent strength. 

The most glaring example of this disconnect would be Italy’s goalie Gianluigi Donnarumma who posted 3 clean sheets in the team’s unblemished conquest of Group A.

You might be thinking, “he didn’t allow any goals, why shouldn’t he be among the two best goalies of the group stage?” But, if you dig a bit deeper, you would see that in over 270 minutes of match-time, Italy only conceded two shots on target and the lowest cumulative expected goals against in the entire tournament to this point.

As such, Donnaruma’s perfect goaltending record is more a testament to Italy’s impenetrable defensive structure rather than his ability to stop quality chances.

With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the best eleven of the group stage. For those who just want to skip ahead, a squad graphic can be found at the bottom of the article.

Goalkeeper

Stole Dimitrievski, North Macedonia

EURO 2020 marked North Macedonia first appearance at a major tournament of any kind, and the newcomers were always going to be in tough to advance further than the group stage.

On the surface, selecting the keeper who tied for the lead in goals allowed as the best goalie of the group stage may seem nonsensical, but as I mentioned earlier, traditional goalkeeping metrics do not account for chance quality and treats all shots against equally.

Despite entertaining as worthy combatants in their group stage matches with a skilled midfield and daring fullbacks, their defence was porous in allowing the highest cumulative post-shot expected goals against (only considers the quality of shots that are on target) in the tournament as well as the second greatest quality of chances against per shot faced.

While only Martin Dubravka and Lukas Hradecky prevented more goals above expected, they did not face anywhere near the amount or quality of chances as Dimitrievski, and it can be assumed that the sheer volume of his workload likely tired him out as the group stage progressed. 

Using more traditional statistics, the North Macedonian goalkeeper faced the second most shots on target (21) while making the third most saves (13), keeping the minnows competitive in their matches and giving them the confidence to venture forward when needed, making them appointment viewing for many neutral observers.

Honourable Mentions – Martin Dubravka – Slovakia, Lukas Hradecky – Finland

Full Back

Andrew Robertson – Scotland

The early returns of EURO 2020 suggest this will be the tournament of the adventurous full back, with several worthy candidates being instrumental in their side’s offensive generation through a heavy dose of progressive dribbles and passes that move the ball out of their own half and set up their teammates in dangerous attacking positions.

With little quality up front or in midfield, Robertson had to bear the brunt of the offensive workload for the Scots, with his passing creating almost all of their scoring opportunities in the final third and ranking at or near the top of all of the tournament’s passing leaderboards.

First, only Germany’s Robin Gosens accumulated more expected assists (measures the chance quality of any shots taken following a pass) than Robertson, who was also the unluckiest creator in the tournament in terms of the number of dangerous chances that were not converted off of his live-play or set-piece deliveries.

Robertson also tied for and held the lead in the group stage in key passes (passes that directly lead to a shot) and completed crosses into the opposing penalty box, with 9 and 5 respectively.

His large involvement in progressing the ball and creating chances for Scotland did not preclude him from fulfilling his defensive responsibilities, as he posted respectable totals for clearances, tackles and interceptions, which he could have been forgiven for shirking seeing as how much Scotland relied on him elsewhere.

Robertson will surely be frustrated with the inability of his teammates to finish off any of the numerous chances he created especially as even one (perhaps against England) may have given Scotland the points necessary to advance to the knockout rounds.

Joakim Maehle – Denmark

A large part of a sneakily threatening Danish attack that finished in the top five in actual goals scored and non-penalty expected goals accumulated, was Maehle’s mazing runs and precise ball delivery from the wide areas of the pitch.

Maehle was particularly threatening during the run of play, tying for the fifth most scoring chances created from a pass during live play, and third in shots created from dribbling past an opponent, which allowed Denmark to create many odd-man opportunities and overwhelm their opposition in threatening areas. His total distance from progressive carries ranks 2nd in the tournament and was a large part of keeping opponents on their toes.

The Danes were also able to challenge well in the air, with Maehle’s 11 completed crosses creating plenty of heading chances for their forwards, adding another dynamic to the Danish offence which makes it difficult to plan for their attack.

Despite Maehle’s large involvement offensively, he was rarely caught out of position and his commitment to tracking back made him a constant threat to initiate a rapid counter on which the Danes were more than equipped to capitalize.

Denmark attempted the fewest pressing challenges in the group stage but Maehle was very effective in his pressures, helping Denmark dispossess targets 52.2% of the time (the third best rate in the tournament), which was important in giving the Danish attack a chance to recover from being vulnerable high up the pitch.

With Denmark being placed in the weaker portion of the bracket, a run to the semi-finals is not out of the question and Maehle’s two-way excellence will be required to ensure the Danes do not wilt under increased expectations. 

Honourable Mentions – Jordi Alba – Spain, Vladimir Coufal – Czech Republic, Denzel Dumfries – Netherlands, Robin Gosens – Germany

Center Back

Leonardo Bonucci – Italy

It would be a travesty to name a best eleven without a single Italian given their perfect display in the group stage, even if the reason is because they did not meet my minutes threshold. 

Luckily, Bonucci featured often enough that I feel comfortable recognizing his irreplaceable presence in the Azzurri’s overall tactical scheme, whether it is in marshalling an unpenetrable backline, or distributing passes from the heart of defence.

The significant number is the zero goals allowed, but their pristine defensive record is a product of allowing the least cumulative expected goals against in the group stage and tying for the tournament lead in shots on target allowed, as the Italians protect keeper Gigi Donnarumma by methodically neutralizing any opposing threats in the air and closing gaps in and around their penalty area.

Although Italy is not lacking for technically proficient midfielders to progress the ball, Bonucci relieves much of the pressure on his teammates by spraying long passes to his forwards and breaking the lines under pressure, completing the 6th most long passes (those travelling more than 30 yards) in the group stage, allowing the team to quickly transition out of defending and into a counterattack. 

Bonucci and the rest of the Italian backline do not have to complete many tackles but that is mostly due to their positional awareness and effective pressing which causes their opposition to lose the ball before they can manufacture an attack.

The Italians look poised to make a deep run and Bonucci’s effectiveness on both sides of the ball will be a key determining factor in their success.

David Alaba – Austria

Austria’s tactical Swiss Army knife was a major reason for their second-place finish in a tricky group which also featured Ukraine and North Macedonia.

It is rare that any player, let alone a centre back, is responsible for as much as Alaba is tasked with and, in a similar vein to Bonucci, Alaba coupled defensive sturdiness with a heavy passing workload that demonstrated his importance to Austria’s hopes of further success.

Alaba was the most effective presser in the group stage, with Austria recovering possession within five seconds of an Alaba press 52.8% of the time, showing that although he is not necessarily as physically imposing as other centre backs, he possesses tactical awareness that puts his team in a better position to start a counterattack.

The Austrian national team always faces a positional conundrum when deciding where Alaba will lineup as his technical ability and defensive positioning allow him to thrive in any setup.

Through the initial three games of the tournament, Alaba is tied for third in shot-creating actions (passes, dribbles, being fouled), with his 6 from dead ball situations currently the most of EURO 2020.

He is also one of four players tied for the lead in key passes leading to a chance (with Robertson, Pierre Hojbjerg, and Kevin De Bruyne) despite playing most of his minutes at centre back, and is tasked as Austria’s main ball transition option out of their defensive half.

Clearly, being stationed in the backline has not suffocated Alaba’s creativeness and if Austria is to meaningfully test the Italian’s in their round of 16 clash, he will have to continue maneuver around opposing defences with his penetrating ball distribution from anywhere on the pitch.

Honourable Mentions – Milan Skriniar – Slovakia, Aymeric Laporte – Spain

Central Midfield

Toni Kroos, Germany

After a poor showing at the 2018 World Cup, the Germans underwent some introspection and decided to turn to their bottomless reserve of talented youth in hopes of injecting some pace and creativity into their aging squad.

Even with the well overdue upheaval, the Real Madrid man retained his place in the starting eleven, with his measured and purposeful passing still able to unlock opposing defenses at the highest level.

Kroos completed the most total passes of any player in the group stage, the most progressive passes (at least 10 yards towards the opponent’s goal), the most passes entering the opposing third of the pitch, and tied for fourth in key passes leading to a shot.

The German midfield maestro has been proficient from set-piece scenarios, creating the 2nd most chances from such situations, making Die Mannschaft a threat to score from anywhere on the pitch as long as Kroos is delivering the pass.  

Without Leon Goretzka for most of the group stage, Kroos has had to take on more of the defensive responsibility in a double-pivot consisting of himself and Ilkay Gundogan.

Although his astute defensive awareness allowed Kroos to accumulate the most combined tackles and interceptions at the tournament, it is less than ideal when he is the focal point of the German attack but a testament to how influential Kroos remains to the overall success of the national program.

For a player who is nearing his 32nd birthday and has logged as many minutes in domestic and international competition over the past decade, Kroos is still as effective as he was in his mid-20s Real Madrid’s dynasty in the early 2010s, and will need to continue being at his puppeteering best if Germany is to break their quarter century drought at the European Championships.

N’Golo Kante, France

The second midfield spot is taken by N’Golo Kante, whose extremely jovial nature masks a ruthless, machine-like efficiency on the pitch.

In a team stuffed to the brim with offensive superstars, Kante is the sober point of conscience, and his tireless running allows loose balls to be recouped with ease and to break up even the most relentless of counter-attacks.

His defensive steel was doubly important in a group that featured continental superpowers in Germany and Portugal, with only two guaranteed a place in the knockout round. 

Even with all of the talent available to manager Didier Deschamps, the French have instead succeeded at the 2018 World Cup and this year’s EUROs on the back of clamping down defensively and playing low-event football. 

Kante’s tenaciousness at the heart of midfield is integral to this strategy, as was demonstrated by his 20 combined tackles and interceptions were tied for third in the group stage, and only behind Kroos among non-defenders.

The diminutive midfielder also harries opponents at a relatively high rate, ensuring that France can regain the ball in advantageous positions and spend very little time having to defend their goal, which resulted in Les Bleues allowing the third least non-penalty expected goals against per 90 minutes behind only Italy and England.

Although capable, Kante is not relied upon for ball progression as his passing output is limited to short passes to Paul Pogba or his centre backs after recovering a loose ball, which frees the Chelsea man to focus on his strengths. 

Even with Kante moving out of his prime, his tireless commitment to defending is still as effective as it was in France’s World Cup triumph and it would not be a surprise to see the French take home another international trophy.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Denmark

In a result that I’m sure delighted nearly everyone, Denmark comprehensively dismantled Russia in their final group match to reach the knockout round after a horrifyingly traumatic experience in their tournament opener in which Christian Eriksen, their midfield fulcrum and emotional leader, was struck by cardiac arrest before half-time. The prompt delivery of medical attention ensured his survival, but his footballing career remains in jeopardy.

In his absence, the role of Denmark’s primary creative director needed to be filled and Hojbjerg stepped up admirably over the course of the group stage, leading the tournament with three assists thus far.

As has been mentioned several times thus far, Hojbjerg was among those tied for the tournament lead in key passes and passes leading to possession further up the pitch, consistently finding teammates in stride and manufacturing shooting opportunities for their talented forward group to challenge opposing defences.

Hojbjerg was also able to place opponents into difficult defensive situations by passing the ball into their penalty box 8 times in the group stage (the second highest total in the group stage, forcing defenders to make potentially destructive split-second decisions.

While much of the offence generated by Hojbjerg was a product of his incisive passing, the Tottenham midfielder did not hesitate to attempt beating defenders off the dribble, completing 6 of his 7 attempted dribbles, a success rate that was third among players with at least 5 total attempts.

Eriksen’s cruel and unfortunate end to the tournament forced Hojbjerg to occupy a role with which he was not overly familiar, but his decisiveness and confidence in possession has almost fully made up for what is missed in Eriksen’s absence.

As I noted in Maehle’s section, Denmark is well-positioned to go far and if they do, it will largely be on the back of Hojbjerg’s emergence as a credible creative threat.

Honourable Mentions – Jorginho – Italy, Gini Wijnaldum – Netherlands, Ruslan Malinovskyi – Ukraine

Forward

Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal

In the opening salvo of EURO 2020, Cristiano Ronaldo once again waved off Father Time and was the creative engine of pre-tournament contenders in Portugal, posting six goal contributions in the process of qualifying for the knockout stages out of a group in which every match was tensely contested.

Yet, despite only 2 of Ronaldo’s tournament leading 5 goals coming from open play, his all-around attacking performance still rates him as among the competition’s top forwards after the group stage.

In terms of non-expected goals for plus expected assists created per 90 minutes, Ronaldo ranks 1st among players with more than 1.5 total 90s. Apart from his teammate Diogo Jota, the rest of the Portuguese side have not pulled their weight offensively, leaving Ronaldo to drag them across the line to qualify in a performance resembling that of their last European Championship.

Ronaldo is no longer the shot generating fiend that he was in his prime, but he has still been able to carve out quality chances when the opportunity presents itself, with his expected goal value per shot taken ranking 5th among all players at the tournament.

As Ronaldo has moved into a central striker in the twilight of his career, he has relied less on his dribbling to beat defenders but still completed 5 of his 7 attempts in the group stage to create several of his own chances.

Even though it is foolish to bet against Ronaldo once again being able to mask Portugal’s deficiencies, it seems unreasonable to have to ask the 36-year-old to not only create and finish his own chances, but be the main playmaking option in the side.

If supporting stars in Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva don’t step up, Portugal will likely be going home earlier than most people predicted.

Memphis Depay – Netherlands

With 7 years between major international tournaments, the absence of the Netherlands has robbed several consecutive competitions of a certain flair and panache, and their long-awaited return emphatically delivered on such hearty praise.

Depay has been a key cog in a rampaging Dutch attack reminiscent of their revolutionary teams of the 1970s, and the versatile forward was involved in scoring or assisting four of their tournament leading eight goals, second behind only Cristiano Ronaldo. 

While the Netherlands’ core midfield pieces of Gini Wijnaldum and Frenkie De Jong are more than capable of creating chances for themselves and their teammates, Depay has taken a leading role in generating scoring opportunities within the nation’s prolific offence.

Depay is tied for second among all players at EURO 2020 for shot creating actions and 4th in per 90 rate among those with at least 2.0 90s played, with his contributions coming from an even mix of live-play passes, set-piece deliveries, and dribbling past opponents.

He hasn’t been afraid to test opposing keepers himself either, taking 10 shots (tied for 2nd overall) in the group stage, although he could stand to show greater composure in front of goal.

Even with his finishing leaving something to be desired, Depay has been a stalking predator thus far, completing the 4th most dribbles at the tournament while being among the leaders in dribbles into and touches within the penalty area.

With how dangerous the Netherlands has already looked, knowing Depay is capable of more should strike fear into any future opponents as the Dutch eye an attainable spot in the semi-finals.

Robert Lewandowski – Poland

With so many deserving attacking candidates, choosing three to highlight this best eleven relegated several strong contenders to the honourable mentions.

What worked in Lewandowski’s favour was how integral he is to Poland’s success in all facets of a game, and how little he had to work with in comparison to other forwards. 

Despite being Poland’s sole offensive threat and commanding most of the defensive attention, Lewandowski was able to tally 3 goals which tied for second in the group stage, as well as accumulating a tournament-leading 12 shots, 4 of which were on target (also tied for 2nd).

He should probably have even more if he had converted on several glorious chances including a header right in front of the net against Sweden that instead went careening off of the crossbar, and may have been the difference between missing out on or making the round of 16.

His non-penalty expected goals total was enough to rank 6th and he had the 4th most touches of the ball inside the opposing penalty area, only serving to highlight how frustratingly unlucky he was to not capitalize on a greater number of prime scoring chances.

His aerial presence was also a central strategy in Poland’s transition of the ball upfield, as he won the 5th most heading duels among forwards which set up the Poles in an attacking position closer to the goal. 

Poland was one of the most aggressive teams in their pressing style, applying the 2nd most pressures in their opponent’s third of the field in an effort to regain the ball in a compromising position.

Lewandowski’s tireless running was needed to succeed in this area, as the striker applied the 4th most pressures in his attacking third among all players. 

It could be said that the pressure as Poland’s primary attacking option, the reliance on his aerial ability, and pushing him to press high up the pitch likely sapped him of energy by the final group game, as he played every minute of his team’s group stage matches.

As another early exit befalls Poland and the almost 33-year-old Lewandowski, it’s becoming increasingly likely that we never see one of this generation’s best strikers experience notable international success.

Honourable Mentions – Gareth Bale – Wales, Romelu Lukaku – Belgium, Andriy Yarmolenko – Ukraine 

It was extremely difficult to narrow down a final eleven as so many players have put in wonderful performances through the initial group phase, and the differences between them were very slight.

It will be very interesting to see who can continue their strong form and make sure to check back here for the final team of the tournament.

Group Stage Best XI

All data courtesy of Football Reference. Top image of Memphis Depay taken from Twitter.

You’re Up Next: Five of EURO 2020’s Breakout Candidates

Featured

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.

Enter, Wind.

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.