• Mié. Jul 24th, 2024

-> Noticias de futbol internacional

The Athletic


Welcome to The Radar — the Euro 2024 edition.

Each major tournament, we build a scouting guide highlighting the players to watch. This summer, we have two men’s international competitions happening at the same time. So, there will be two Radars.

First up, it’s Euro 2024.

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There is a bespoke data visualisation for every player, with all our data correct as of Sunday, June 9.

Just click to expand and collapse each card, and you can use the filters to sort players by nation, club or position. They are handily arranged in group order to make it easier for you to get the lowdown on the players who pose an immediate threat to the nation you are supporting this summer.

You might also be interested from a club perspective, as your team might have been linked with a move for one of these players this summer. Plenty of them, including Benjamin Sesko, Joao Neves and Nico Williams, have been tipped for big transfers. For most nations, the transfer window opens during the tournament…

It’s been a huge undertaking from our brilliant team of writers, data experts, editors, designers and engineers, so thank you to everyone involved.

Here they are, in no particular order: Mark Carey, Andy Jones, Thom Harris, Jacob Whitehead, James Horncastle, Michael Cox, Dermot Corrigan, Seb Stafford-Bloor, Caoimhe O’Neill, Marc Mazzoni, Liam Tharme, Joseph Bentley, Justin Guthrie, Eamonn Dalton, Peter Rutzler, John Muller, Jordan Campbell, Patrick Boyland, Sam Lee and Stuart James.

You can also listen to the corresponding podcast series on The Athletic FC Podcast, profiling 12 of the most exciting young players across both the Euros and Copa America this summer. Click here to listen for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all the usual places.

Enjoy!

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Group A

Florian Wirtz

MID

Germany
🇩🇪
AGE:
21
CAPS:
18
CLUB:
Bayer Leverkusen

Florian Wirtz is the Bundesliga Player of the Season and deservedly so.

He has been the creative flourish in Xabi Alonso’s outstanding Bayer Leverkusen side and having been expected to become the best player in the country for so long, he finally now is.

Even though he is only 21, it has been a long process. As an academy prospect at Cologne, Wirtz was seen as the best talent the Rhineland had provided in decades. He moved to nearby Leverkusen when he was 17, despite an unwritten agreement among those clubs not to sign each other’s youth players, and for a paltry €200,000 (£170,000; $220,000). That is still a sore point. 

But Wirtz’s journey has had other difficulties. In March 2022, an anterior cruciate ligament tear threatened the potential of an attacking midfielder whose stock in trade was his gliding movement and fearlessness in taking the ball past defenders. Wirtz missed the rest of the year — nine months in total.

Leverkusen were patient with his rehabilitation. Despite the slump in form that cost Gerardo Seoane his job in 2022, Wirtz was never rushed back. 

Their reward, when he did reappear, was a player who developed incredibly quickly under Alonso, becoming the most dangerous creative threat in the division and probably more complete than he was expected to be. 

Looking at the locations of Wirtz’s chances created in the Bundesliga during Leverkusen’s title-winning season, you can better understand his penchant for receiving those passes between opposition lines before threading the ball through to a team-mate from outside the area, or from the left half-space.

Helpfully, his roles at club and international level overlap. He has played as a No 10 for Leverkusen, usually alongside Jonas Hoffman and behind one of Victor Boniface or Patrik Schick, both of whom like to withdraw from the forward line. For Julian Nagelsmann’s Germany, he will operate alongside Jamal Musiala and, most likely, behind Kai Havertz. 

There are differences, certainly, and the Musiala combination has only been road-tested in a couple of friendlies, but the potential is there for everyone to see. Together, they were much too good for France and the Netherlands this year and, while not anticipated, Havertz’s work from a false-nine role was a perfect complement. 

So, that might go well. But Wirtz? He’s a star. He will not leave Leverkusen for at least another season but when he does, the tournament should show why it will be for one of the biggest transfer fees in footballing history.

Seb Stafford-Bloor

Photo:
Getty Images
Germany
Bayer Leverkusen
MID
Group A

Jamal Musiala

MID

Germany
🇩🇪
AGE:
21
CAPS:
29
CLUB:
Bayern Munich

Jamal Musiala is a spectacle of a player. His misfortune has been to emerge at Bayern Munich when so much else is happening. He broke into the first team the season after Bayern had won their Bundesliga-Pokal-Champions League treble and while he has been individually successful, his thunder has been repeatedly stolen. 

Was there ever a better example of that on the final day of the 2022-23 season? Musiala’s sensational goal from the edge of the box won Bayern the league title. Contextually, it might have been the goal of the season. And yet immediately afterwards, the focus was more on the fallout from the club’s decision to sack sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic and CEO Oliver Kahn. 

That’s been the way for him: Musiala’s rise has always had a distraction — a coaching controversy or change, a new €100million centre-forward from England. Whatever the case, he has been allowed to grow somewhat in the dark. 

If he has a good tournament, his England eligibility will be brought up quickly. He spent almost a decade in Chelsea’s academy and represented England all the way through the age-group system. But Musiala was born in Germany, in Stuttgart, and feels more German; it’s really no more complicated than that. 

That’s Germany’s privilege. Stylistically, Musiala is probably most comfortable playing from the left-hand side – out to in, from the edge of the penalty area is where he is most dangerous. His timing in the box is extremely good, but it’s his ball-carrying that sets him apart. He almost shape-shifts his way through tackles at times and his close control is something to be seen.

Those actions after taking on his man (shown by the dotted lines below) highlight how eager he is to drive towards goal, trusting himself to head into the congestion rather than away from it.

For a long time, the assumption in Germany was that Musiala would never be able to play with Florian Wirtz for the national team. One would have to be moved to accommodate the other. Not so according to Julian Nagelsmann, who has had success playing them as twin ’No 10s’ behind Kai Havertz.

Wirtz is the distributor, Musiala the carrier, Havertz the pivot. It has worked well and though Germany are not expected to win the tournament, their combinations, allied with Nagelsmann’s quick, vertical football, will make them dangerous. 

And if they are, Musiala should finally be centre stage.

Seb Stafford-Bloor

Photo:
Getty Images
Germany
Bayern Munich
MID
Group A

Toni Kroos

MID

Germany
🇩🇪
AGE:
34
CAPS:
109
CLUB:
Real Madrid

Who does not love an era-defining player coming out of retirement for one last tournament? 

Kroos’ return, which was announced in December 2023 after initially departing international football in 2021, is fun. Because of how he plays and because his game has never leaned too much on athleticism, he is the sort of footballer you could imagine playing forever. It will be a privilege to watch him control the base of Germany’s midfield one more time. 

Just like his country, Real Madrid depend on Kroos as the key conductor of their attack. It might not always be him taking the shot or creating the chance but, looking at all of Madrid’s open-play shot-ending sequences in the graphic below, Kroos has his fingerprints on many of their routes towards goal.

No player has been more involved in the build-up to moves that end in a shot on goal (4.1 per 90 minutes) than the 34-year-old this season.

And this will be the last time we see him on the pitch. Kroos will retire from playing football when the tournament ends, bringing the curtain down on one of the great careers. 

So, the dynamic is fun, but Julian Nagelsmann actually needs him. The games against France and the Netherlands this year, which reawakened Germany’s enthusiasm for this team, are best remembered for the performances of Jamal Musiala, Florian Wirtz and Maxi Mittelstadt. And for Peter Schilling and Major Tom.

But would any of it have worked without Kroos? Most likely not. Nagelsmann’s Germany are not going to overwhelm anybody with their individual class, but they can be competitive by becoming, for want of a better description, ’RB Deutschland’.

To do that, they need a midfielder possessing the distribution qualities of Kroos, who is comfortable receiving the ball from the defence, but also then moves it up the pitch quickly, taking advantage of Leroy Sane’s speed and the ball carrying of Musiala and Wirtz. 

It’s a fascinating proposition. On the one hand, this is a farewell tour that everybody wants to see. On the other, it’s really one that Germany are dependent upon and need to go well. 

But has Kroos ever let anyone down on the big occasion? He will head into this tournament, and the last few games of his career, having won the World Cup, the Champions League five times, and with fistfuls of league winners’ medals from Germany and Spain. 

At the very least, the odds should be on another masterful set of performances.

Seb Stafford-Bloor

Photo:
Getty Images
Germany
Real Madrid
MID
Group A

Dominik Szoboszlai

MID

Hungary
🇭🇺
AGE:
23
CAPS:
42
CLUB:
Liverpool

The introduction to English football could not have gone better for Dominik Szoboszlai after signing for Liverpool last summer. Within weeks of making his Premier League debut, he was earning comparisons to club legend Steven Gerrard.

The energy, athleticism, ball carrying, ball striking and all-round technical quality were attributes to marvel at. He was a breath of fresh air in a Liverpool midfield that had toiled through the previous campaign.

The 23-year-old failed to maintain those extremely high standards, though, before suffering injuries that restricted his game time in the early months of 2024. When he did return, he found it hard to regain his form. 

Still, a lot of what Liverpool did well would often come through Szoboszlai when he was on the pitch. Looking at Liverpool’s open-play shot-ending sequences, only team-mate Harvey Elliott was involved more frequently.

Hungary need Szoboszlai to be the best version of himself for the upcoming tournament. He is their star man. His quality and leadership qualities earned him the captaincy in 2022, aged 21, and Hungary have only lost one of the following 16 games since.

Szoboszlai has dealt with pressure and expectation for most of his life. From an early age, he was pinpointed as the country’s next big hope. 

Born in Szekesfehervar, football was drilled into him, almost from the moment he was born. While other children played with toys, Szoboszlai had a ball at his feet. At home he would be instructed by his father, Zsolt, to dribble around water bottles. If he knocked one over, he would have to start again.

His father, who was also a professional footballer, created his own academy, Fonix Gold. From the age of six, Szoboszlai spent his childhood there. Unique training methods helped shape him into the player he has become, such as training with golf balls in his hands to ensure he learned how to win back possession cleanly.

He became part of the Hungarian setup at under-15 level and a successful trial led to him signing for Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg, aged 16, joining the Red Bull conveyor belt. He started out for Salzburg’s second team, FC Liefering, before making his debut for Salzburg aged 17. He moved to RB Leipzig in December 2020.

His secret weapon is his small feet. Szoboszlai’s feet are a size seven, helped by the midfielder wearing boots that were slightly too small for him. In Hungary, members of the older generation have a theory that if you are “blessed” with small feet, there’s a far greater chance of succeeding as a footballer, dating back to the country’s greatest player, Ferenc Puskas.

Andy Jones

Photo:
Getty Images
Hungary
Liverpool
MID
Group A

John McGinn

MID

Scotland
🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
AGE:
29
CAPS:
66
CLUB:
Aston Villa

It is difficult to watch John McGinn in possession of a football and not think he is already some part of the way to toppling over.

His hunchback dribbling style where he often stops the ball dead, before backing into the opposition player and using his derriere as a human force field to pivot away, is an idiosyncrasy at the elite level of the game. It is, however, a remarkably effective method of protecting the ball.

He draws fouls and you sense he enjoys being in the trenches, but it is the more polished ability of driving possession that has defined his success this season with Aston Villa.

McGinn is not the most fluent on the eye for a left-footed midfielder, typically crafty and graceful. He can look jolty in his movements, but it would be wrong to let aesthetics overlook the fact he is objectively one of the most progressive midfielders in English football.

Accounting for all midfielders in the Premier League, only Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard played a higher percentage of ’progressive passes’ (see graphic below). The Scot outperformed playmakers James Maddison and Bruno Fernandes, who enjoy creative licence at their teams.

McGinn is much more of a jack-of-all-trades. It was to his detriment at Villa under Steven Gerrard, who seemed determined to extract all of his qualities but ended up diluting his major strengths by using him in a deeper central midfield role.

Since Unai Emery took over, his performances have taken a significant upturn. The Spaniard has played McGinn on the left of a narrow midfield four, using his relentless work ethic to choke the opposition’s passing lanes and giving his deceptive athleticism the room to burst forward at loose balls.

For Scotland, Steve Clarke has similarly liberated him in the last five years. After not scoring in his first 14 caps, he has notched 16 goals and provided eight assists in 45 appearances under Clarke to become Scotland’s most reliable source of goals.

Playing in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 formation, McGinn is used alongside Scott McTominay as an advanced midfielder who plays off the striker at second balls and attacks the box from crosses. Billy Gilmour and Callum McGregor are there to build play, so Clarke has sought to reshape McGinn as a second striker.

A player who can be the king of attrition one moment and a classy finisher the next, McGinn is Mr Input for Villa and Mr Output for Scotland.

Jordan Campbell

Photo:
Getty Images
Scotland
Aston Villa
MID
Group A

Granit Xhaka

MID

Switzerland
🇨🇭
AGE:
31
CAPS:
125
CLUB:
Bayer Leverkusen

When Granit Xhaka signed for Arsenal in 2016, he looked like a midfield playmaker who had been moulded precisely to fit the role of a deep-lying playmaker.

Spraying diagonals and switching possession from side to side, he was the single midfield pivot with the stylish left foot. He could have been lab-grown it looked so natural for him, but he was not someone many imagined could, or would, change genres throughout his career.

The last two years have proven that theory incorrect. After overcoming a public spat with the Arsenal crowd in 2019 that saw him stripped of the captaincy under Unai Emery, Mikel Arteta re-cast him on the left of a midfield three in the 2022-23 season.

With Thomas Partey at the base and Martin Odegaard on the right, Xhaka performed a structured role. Left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko drifted into the centre of the pitch, which meant space opened up for Xhaka to pull out wide and receive the ball.

He was much less involved in play than he had been used to, with his average touches per 90 minutes dropping from 75 to around 50, but the crucial change was that he was involved in all three phases rather than just build-up.

Xhaka could get into crossing positions and attack the box with late runs, which saw him record a career-high nine goals and seven assists in all competitions.

Despite his revival at Arsenal, Xhaka was allowed to move to Bayer Leverkusen last summer in a deal that could rise to €25million (£21.2m; $27m). Xabi Alonso returned him to a central role in his 3-2-4-1 formation alongside Exequiel Palacios, but the style of play, which produced a historic league and cup double, required another change of style for Xhaka.

Compared to Arsenal’s slow, methodical build-up, Leverkusen’s possession play is based around clusters of players combining through short passing combinations. The number of passes Xhaka made per 90 minutes exploded to nearly 100, but 57 per cent of them were over a short distance — comfortably higher than his previous six seasons — and just seven per cent were defined as long passes.

It captures how metronomic Xhaka has become at Leverkusen, with possession flowing through him.

Switzerland, expected to line up in a 4-2-3-1 system, will look to him to progress the ball. The last time he did not start an international game was November 2021 and, given that time has packed in evolution and adaptation, he arrives at the tournament as the most well-rounded version of himself we have seen.

Jordan Campbell

Photo:
Getty Images
Switzerland
Bayer Leverkusen
MID
Group A
Group B

Kristjan Asllani

MID

Albania
🇦🇱
AGE:
22
CAPS:
19
CLUB:
Inter Milan

Six months in Serie A were enough to persuade Inter Milan to sign Kristjan Asllani.

The deep-lying playmaker had only recently broken into the Empoli first team, but Italy’s biggest clubs were already moving. The transfer of Italy Under-21 international Samuele Ricci to Torino in early 2022 opened up a fast track to regular game time at Empoli.

Asllani seized his chance, immediately generating more hype than the kid he replaced. A finely taken goal away at San Siro against Inter wasn’t enough on its own to get Empoli’s opponents reaching for their chequebook, but it helped crystallise the notion that Asllani could be Marcelo Brozovic’s long-term successor in the ’regista’ role in front of Inter’s back three.

Born in Albania but raised in the shadow of the leaning tower of Pisa, Asllani first kicked a ball around at his local club Butese, a soccer school headed by Francesco Pratali, a former fan favourite at Empoli. He then moved to one of Tuscany’s best feeder teams, Tau Altopascio.

Ordinarily, a player of his potential would attract the interest of Fiorentina and they have recently become very successful again at youth level, but Asllani was advised to join Empoli, a club whose entire ethos is about showcasing young talent.

The €12million (£10.2m; $13m) move to Inter perhaps came too soon. Brozovic was often injured in Asllani’s first season at San Siro and he wasn’t ready to pick up the baton and conduct Inter’s orchestra. It’s one of the reasons Hakan Calhanoglu had to reinvent himself into one of the best No 6s in world football.

But with time, Asllani has learned the ropes and started to make an impact. He came on against Roma earlier in the season when the score was 0-0 and changed the game, playing a long diagonal for Federico Dimarco to cut back to Marcus Thuram, who scored the winner.

Looking at the locations of his open-play touches in the Champions League since the start of last season, you can see that he will often lock down the centre of the field.

He netted his first goal on his 53rd Inter appearance, taking full advantage of a through ball from Lautaro Martinez against Genoa.

Across two years, Asllani has completed the domestic sweep at Inter: the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa and, this season, the Serie A title. He was also on the bench for the Champions League final Inter narrowly lost to Manchester City in Istanbul.

His Euro 2024 will get underway in Dortmund against his adopted country, Italy. It’ll be a sentimental game for someone with both passports and who pronounces his Cs and Ts like a proper Tuscan in the style of the Azzurri’s own coach, Luciano Spalletti.

James Horncastle

Photo:
Getty Images
Albania
Inter Milan
MID
Group B

Luka Modric

MID

Croatia
🇭🇷
AGE:
38
CAPS:
175
CLUB:
Real Madrid

This summer’s European Championship will surely be the international swansong for Croatia’s evergreen captain Luka Modric, but even as he approaches his 39th birthday in September, he continues to perform at an extraordinary level for club and country.

The 2018 Ballon d’Or winner earned a record 25th trophy for Real Madrid with the 2023-24 La Liga title (and added the Champions League to make it 26) and his CV now boasts six Champions League titles and three La Ligas. 

During Madrid’s biggest games this year, Modric entered as a second-half substitute to provide control or inspiration as required — a role he performed admirably, including in Champions League away legs at Manchester City and Bayern Munich. 

Although frustrated about not playing more, he regularly had an influence for Madrid, whether as a starter or a substitute. His ability to play a killer pass remains as sharp as ever — among his six assists in La Liga was the flick to set up Jude Bellingham’s late winner in October’s Clasico at Barcelona.

Looking at his pass sonar, which visualises the direction and distance of a player’s passes, you can see just how comfortable Modric is in distributing the ball left or right with equal success.

Croatia’s record cap holder (with 175) debuted in 2006 (!) and has led separate generations of players to the final of the 2018 World Cup and third place at the 2022 World Cup. 

Modric’s strong character and competitive instinct, forged when his family had to leave home during the 1990s Balkan conflict, means he demands the same standards from everyone else that he sets for himself. 

Long-serving national coach Zlatko Dalic continues to see this influence as vital. Modric played almost every minute as Croatia beat the Netherlands in extra time in the 2023 Nations League semi-finals (scoring one and assisting two), then lost to Spain on penalties in the final. He then started all eight of Croatia’s Euro 2024 qualifiers. Eager for playing time, he even started both friendlies in March – providing two trademark assists in the 4-2 win in Egypt.

This will be Modric’s fifth European Championship (another record, shared with his former Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo). In a neat twist, Croatia have faced his current home country Spain in each of the last three Euro finals and the two nations meet again in the Group B opener on June 15 in Berlin.

Modric has recently agreed a one-year extension with Real Madrid, having rejected offers from elsewhere. But first, Euro 2024 brings a chance for another crowning moment in one of the greatest careers in football history.

Dermot Corrigan

Photo:
Getty Images
Croatia
Real Madrid
MID
Group B

Martin Baturina

MID

Croatia
🇭🇷
AGE:
21
CAPS:
3
CLUB:
Dinamo Zagreb

Dinamo Zagreb have an illustrious history when it comes to producing top talent. Luka Modric came through the Croatian club’s academy and in recent years, Josko Gvardiol and Dani Olmo have also progressed through the ranks before making the breakthrough in Europe’s top leagues. 

Martin Baturina looks primed to be the next off that famous production line. 

The son of former Croatia international Mate, Baturina is already drawing parallels with Modric due to his diminutive frame, technical quality and ability to manoeuvre the ball in tight areas. 

”Baturina, like Modric, is a midfielder who sees the game very well and is a great candidate to be Modric’s successor after Luka’s farewell, along with Mateo Kovacic,” former Dinamo coach Tomislav Obradovic said last year.

A versatile midfielder capable of playing as a No 10 or operating further back in midfield, the 21-year-old is already a mainstay in the Dinamo team, registering five goals and eight assists across 32 appearances in the Croatian league this season. That form earned him a first call-up to the senior national team in November and he made his debut in a 2-0 win over Latvia later that same month.

Baturina is a prolific ball recuperator from attacking midfield and is comfortable linking and retaining play. 

As shown below using data from smarterscout — which gives players a series of ratings from zero to 99 — his expected goals from ball progression score is also high (86 out of 99), which highlights how much he looks to get the ball into those dangerous areas. Although not a regular dribbler, Baturina is dangerous when using his low centre of gravity to evade tackles in midfield and drive from deep, while he also has the quality to carve open a defence with his passing.

There have been links already to Arsenal and Juventus, with Dinamo said to value the 21-year-old above €20million (£17m; $21.8m). There is some doubt in recruitment circles whether clubs will meet such a valuation at this stage in his career, or whether he is physically ready for the Premier League. 

Touted as the potential long-term heir to Modric, for now, he is likely to have to play second fiddle to his decorated team-mate. But this summer’s tournament is another prime opportunity for Baturina to put himself in the shop window and reinforce his status as a coming force for his country.

Patrick Boyland

Photo:
Getty Images
Croatia
Dinamo Zagreb
MID
Group B

Nicolo Barella

MID

Italy
🇮🇹
AGE:
27
CAPS:
53
CLUB:
Inter Milan

When Italy won the European Championship three years ago, Nicolo Barella was a crucial part of the best midfield in the tournament. In deeper zones, Italy could rely upon the brilliantly technical combination of Jorginho and Marco Verratti, who put Italy in charge and dominated possession in the engine room.

Barella’s work came higher up. As the most attacking midfielder of the trio, he was charged with making constant runs into inside-right positions, almost becoming a forward in the attacking phase. His goal in the 2-1 win over Belgium in the second round, where he slalomed past a defender and then crashed the ball home, was typical. His finishes tend to be extremely powerful and for a midfielder, he scores a lot of goals when going in behind the opposition defence. 

That said, as a near-ever-present attacking midfielder in a title-winning Inter Milan side, it’s notable that Barella has struggled for goals this season, managing just two in Serie A. Still, he tends to come alive when playing for Italy and scored in the 2-0 victory over Ecuador in March.

His game at club level has changed a little: there’s more control and slightly less attacking dynamism. At 27, Barella has perhaps started the shift into a more wily veteran, having previously been an all-action runner.

Perhaps his style is summarised best by a recent debate on an Italian television show, where former Italy and Napoli winger Massimo Mauro surprisingly suggested he could become on the same level as Andres Iniesta, which prompted incredulity from fellow panellist Ivan Zazzaroni, who said he was more in the Antonio Conte mould. There is quite a difference between the style of the skilful Iniesta and the style of the hard-working Conte, but Barella could be described as a hybrid.

Under new Italy manager Luciano Spalletti, Barella might find himself playing deeper than he did under Roberto Mancini. Verratti, now playing in Qatar, is not in the squad and the signs suggest Spalletti will favour a 3-4-2-1 system, which would feature Barella playing alongside Jorginho in a midfield partnership. Barella can play that role more comfortably these days, but it also feels a shame if he’s not fielded in a position where he can burst forward in the right-hand channel, surprising defenders with his late runs.

Italy might be without him for their opening game against Albania, though, after Barella strained his right thigh. “We hope it’s like what happened with Gennaro Gattuso at the 2006 World Cup,” Gianluigi Buffon said in his new executive role with the national team. “Gattuso missed the first game then played a leading role.”

Michael Cox

Photo:
Getty Images
Italy
Inter Milan
MID
Group B

Alessandro Bastoni

DEF

Italy
🇮🇹
AGE:
25
CAPS:
22
CLUB:
Inter Milan

Italy is renowned for producing great defenders and two of the symbols of their penalty shootout victory over England at Euro 2020 were the centre-backs.

There was the rugged Giorgio Chiellini, who shamelessly hauled back Bukayo Saka in a rare moment of Italy panic, and then the classy Leonardo Bonucci, who sent a series of diagonal balls downfield and also popped up with the crucial equaliser. But both of them are now gone. What comes next?

Well, the answer is Alessandro Bastoni, a squad player three years ago but now Italy’s most dependable centre-back. He could be considered a cross between his aforementioned compatriots — he’s physical and left-footed like Chiellini and reads the game astutely and passes elegantly like Bonucci. He has won two league titles and two Coppa Italia winners’ medals in his five years as a regular and also reached the final of the Europa League and the Champions League.

The 2023-24 season was arguably his best yet — Bastoni was an obvious pick for every pundit’s best Serie A XI. He was only on the losing side twice in all competitions this season and in one of them, the 2-1 Champions League second-leg defeat at Atletico Madrid, he at least got on the scoresheet.

Bastoni has thrived in Inter Milan’s three-man defence, playing to the left and given the licence to bring the ball out from the back — as shown below by his forward carries.

Luciano Spalletti seems set to use a similar system this summer, which would allow Bastoni to reprise his successful relationship with fellow Inter man Federico Dimarco, the wing-back who makes rapid runs forward into attack.

Under the adventurous Spalletti, who took Napoli to Serie A glory last year, Italy will probably play a more front-foot style of play than they have traditionally and the technical quality of their defenders will be a major reason for that – though they will miss the 20-year-old Atalanta centre-back Giorgio Scalvini, who has been ruled out through injury.

At club level, Bastoni has constantly been linked with moves to the Premier League, including to Manchester City, whose manager Pep Guardiola seems intent on fielding as many centre-backs as he possibly can. But Italian defenders — like Chiellini and Bonucci — often find themselves happiest playing in Italy. Inter feel like Serie A’s dominant club and the 25-year-old Bastoni might prove to be their ’bandiera’, the symbol of the side, for years to come.

Michael Cox

Photo:
Getty Images
Italy
Inter Milan
DEF
Group B

Federico Chiesa

FWD

Italy
🇮🇹
AGE:
26
CAPS:
46
CLUB:
Juventus

In the popular imagination, Federico Chiesa became Italy’s most valuable player at the last Euros. People forget that the current captain, Gianluigi Donnarumma, was named player of the tournament and Italy’s most impactful player until his injury in the quarter-final was Leonardo Spinazzola.

In the three years since Italy’s epic shootout win against England at Wembley, Chiesa’s career has not hit the heights expected of him after the clutch moments he produced in that tournament, particularly in the Austria and Spain knockout-phase games.

One of the reasons for that is the serious knee injury he suffered in early 2022. The other is the negative tactics of Juventus under Massimiliano Allegri. But Chiesa has to take some responsibility himself. He is 26 and has only once got into double figures in a league season in Serie A (and that was four years ago). Juventus have yet to offer him a new deal even though his contract expires in 2025.

Chiesa needs to rediscover his best form to help Italy and himself. If Spalletti plays three at the back with inside forwards or ’No 10s’ instead of a winger, Chiesa may suffer in the same way he has done at Juventus.

Chiesa tends to struggle through the middle and drifts out wide where he needs an overlapping full-back to attract one of the defenders charged with double-teaming him. His last goals for Italy came in the 5-2 win over North Macedonia in Rome last November when he bagged two.

“As far as I am concerned, Chiesa needs isolating,” Spalletti said, and the visualisation below emphasises how the forward can demonstrate his speed when given space.

“He can’t have too much traffic around him,” Spalletti continued. ”It is in the one-on-one situations that he really has a frightening ability with his sudden bursts.”

James Horncastle

Photo:
Getty Images
Italy
Juventus
FWD
Group B

Gianluca Scamacca

FWD

Italy
🇮🇹
AGE:
25
CAPS:
16
CLUB:
Atalanta

Luciano Spalletti wished to provoke a reaction and a reaction is what he got. He dropped Scamacca from his squad for Italy’s mini-tour of the United States in March. The decision, Spalletti later clarified, was down to Scamacca’s attitude. He considered the striker ’pigro’, lazy, and felt some players were more interested in winning in the Call of Duty video game than Euro 2024.

Scamacca took it personally. He has been in the form of his life ever since and helped his club, Atalanta, win their first European trophy. The former West Ham United striker finished the campaign with 19 goals and seven assists in all competitions. Eleven came after Spalletti left him out of the friendlies against Venezuela and Ecuador.

Named man of the match in Atalanta’s famous 3-0 win at Anfield, he scored in Marseille as he had done in Lisbon against Sporting, showing the kind of decisiveness in knockout football that made not calling him up unthinkable.

At 25, Scamacca finally appears to be fulfilling his potential. He has been part of the Italy setup since under-15 level, earning more than 100 call-ups through the age groups. His first senior goal came at Wembley against England last autumn. No one else in his position in Italy possesses his combination of size and skill. The quality of his finishing and final balls this season has, at times, been astonishing.

Theoretically, Scamacca should be the long-awaited answer to Italy’s perceived problem in the No 9 role. He has the talent to be his country’s X factor and one of the players of the tournament. But it remains to be seen if he can translate his form with his club into goals for his national team. In March, Genoa’s Mateo Retegui was perhaps prematurely adjudged to have done enough to win the No 9 jersey after scoring his fourth goal in five caps.

James Horncastle

Photo:
Getty Images
Italy
Atalanta
FWD
Group B

Lamine Yamal

FWD

Spain
🇪🇸
AGE:
16
CAPS:
7
CLUB:
Barcelona

At first, Luis de la Fuente’s decision to fast-track Lamine Yamal into the senior Spain setup seemed just a way of making sure the Barcelona starlet did not switch allegiance to Morocco.

Then Yamal scored on his debut in last September’s Euro 2024 qualifier against Georgia, curling a shot into the far corner to become Spain’s youngest male scorer at 16 years and 57 days old. 

He has been a regular starter for Spain since, scoring with a composed finish in another qualifier win against Cyprus and playing a role in all three of their goals in a 3-3 draw against Brazil in Madrid in March. He shone in their final warm-up game before the Euros, too, grabbing two assists in the 5-1 thrashing of Northern Ireland. 

It is all part of a fairytale 12 months for Yamal, during which the Catalan-born graduate of Barca’s La Masia academy became the youngest La Liga player (15 years, nine months, 25 days), youngest Champions League starter (16 years, 83 days) and youngest La Liga scorer (16 years, 87 days).

He has become one of his team’s most dangerous attackers for club and country. He generally picks up a position high and wide on the right wing, where he can receive the ball with the rival defence stretched. From there, he immediately looks to cut inside and take on his marker — such as the driving run that won a penalty for Spain against Brazil.

Even more striking is his phenomenal maturity and decision-making. Seven goals and 10 assists in 49 Barca appearances in 2023-24 included many moments of top quality, including the run and pass to set up Raphinha’s goal against Paris Saint-Germain in April’s Champions League quarter-final and the clinical first-time finish to beat Real Sociedad in a crucial La Liga game in May.

Such precocity raises inevitable concerns around physical or mental overexertion in the long term — as experienced by other Barca starlets Pedri and Ansu Fati. But such is Yamal’s quality, it is difficult for any coach to leave him out.

Barring injury, Yamal looks sure to be involved in Spain’s first game of the tournament and become the youngest player in European Championship history. His 17th birthday is on July 13, the day before the Euro 2024 final. 

Dermot Corrigan

Photo:
Getty Images
Spain
Barcelona
FWD
Group B

Nico Williams

FWD

Spain
🇪🇸
AGE:
21
CAPS:
14
CLUB:
Athletic Bilbao

A man-of-the-match performance to help Athletic Bilbao win the Copa del Rey final was the crowning moment of an excellent club season for Nico Williams.

After being denied a goal by a tight offside call, a precise through ball set up team-mate Oihan Sancet’s equaliser and a trademark mazy dribble past three defenders created an excellent chance for his team-mate and brother Inaki Williams.

Nico attempted an astounding 17 dribbles, nine of which were successful, even after the opponents, Real Mallorca, changed their tactics to try to stop him after an hour of play.

It was a demonstration of how Nico’s decision-making has improved significantly. His natural pace and dribbling ability have always got him into promising positions, but he has made equally rapid strides in the past 12 months with his end product.

A regular starter on the left wing, Nico provided five goals and 11 assists in La Liga. He really shone in the Copa campaign, scoring three goals and registering five assists in six games, including clinical strikes in wins against Barcelona in the quarter-final and Atletico Madrid in the semi.

There is still potential for further improvement in his game — especially his work in tighter spaces, linking with team-mates to unlock packed defences — but looking at his attacking carries below, you can see how much he likes to drive into those lucrative half-spaces when he can stretch his legs.

Luis de la Fuente asks Nico to play his club role for Spain, stretching the play by staying wide and then driving forward when he gets the ball. Although not a regular starter through qualifying, he is expected to begin the tournament as first choice on the left wing. 

Both Williams brothers were born in the Basque country after their parents made a difficult journey from their homeland of Ghana (whom Inaki represents at international level). In the aftermath of the emotional Copa final win, it was difficult to imagine them not playing together in Athletic’s Europa League campaign next season.

Yet, the new Athletic contract Nico signed in December, which runs until June 2027, includes a €50million (£42.5m; $54m) release clause. If he shows his best form at Euro 2024, that price will look very tempting and Premier League clubs Aston Villa and Chelsea have shown an interest in the past.

Dermot Corrigan

Photo:
Getty Images
Spain
Athletic Bilbao
FWD
Group B

Alex Grimaldo

DEF

Spain
🇪🇸
AGE:
28
CAPS:
4
CLUB:
Bayer Leverkusen

With all due respect to Alex Grimaldo and his seven and a half years at Benfica, where he performed solidly and won four league titles, it’s fair to ask where on earth this season’s displays have come from.

Since moving to Bayer Leverkusen last summer, the 28-year-old has exploded into the most prolific wing-back in European football.

Grimaldo reached double figures for both goals and assists, a staggering return for a player in his position. No player in Europe’s major five leagues beat his tally of 13 assists. As for reaching double figures in goals, there are attacking midfielders who never reached that landmark in their careers — Andres Iniesta, to name one. Grimaldo’s form has been sensational.

It is made all the more noticeable when comparing his assist and expected assist — which measures the expected goals value of the shot that is assisted — figures across his career. A rate of 0.42 assists per 90 minutes is comfortably his highest in recent years.

It helps that Grimaldo is a set-piece specialist who is capable of bending extraordinary free kicks into the net. He can score from crazy angles out on the left, too.

He has also benefited from being part of a brilliantly cohesive team. At times, the movement of Leverkusen’s left-sided centre-back has allowed him to push inside into central positions, almost becoming an extra midfielder.

”He knew what I could bring and in which areas of the game I could contribute beyond being a full-back,” Grimaldo said. ”He has given me the confidence and freedom to do so.”

Leverkusen completed an unbeaten league campaign and a domestic double, but Grimaldo, like his team-mates, seemed to suffer stagefright for the Europa League final in Dublin, wasting his side’s best chance by tamely lofting the ball at, rather than over, Atalanta’s onrushing goalkeeper. He was substituted as Xabi Alonso tried to find a way to get Leverkusen back into things.

It remains to be seen how Grimaldo fares for Spain. He only made his debut in November, linking up well with Mikel Oyarzabal down the left, and started again in the 1-0 friendly defeat to Colombia in March.

Playing as a conventional left-back is very different to his Leverkusen role. “I’m a full-back who likes to get forward more than anything else,” he said after being handed his first call-up. ”Saying that, I’ve improved a lot defensively. I can play in a back four, or a back five. I like to play on the inside if I’m needed and I can adapt to different roles.” 

Michael Cox

Photo:
Getty Images
Spain
Bayer Leverkusen
DEF
Group B

Rodri

MID

Spain
🇪🇸
AGE:
27
CAPS:
50
CLUB:
Manchester City

For such an obvious, muscular presence on the football pitch, it might be the subtleties of Rodri’s game that make him so special. 

There is plenty of obvious stuff to get stuck into: the numbers, for a start, explain exactly how important he is to Manchester City, given he has not lost in the league for 50 matches.

There are the big headers to clear away corners and nod down opposition goal kicks, big shoulders leant into opponents to nudge them off the ball as they try to dart towards the City goal and, especially this season, big goals (eight) and assists (nine) that helped Pep Guardiola’s side make up for the departures of Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez.

He had the most touches and the most passes in the whole Premier League last season, but what might be most impressive is how many of those would have been made under intense pressure.

A key part of City’s entire gameplan is to give their holding midfielder (whoever it is, but it is almost always Rodri) the ball under pressure, so he can absorb it for however long is necessary before moving the ball onto somebody in a little more space as a result.

The ‘however long is necessary’ part is important because he might have to give the ball immediately if circumstances dictate, but giving it immediately when he has more time might not really achieve anything, so he will hold it until somebody approaches and then move it. The difference might be less than a second, but he rarely seems to get the calculation wrong.

This is illustrated using data from SkillCorner, which shows how often a midfielder receives pressure on the ball “per 30 minutes of team possession” (to account for differences in opportunity to make certain actions). Here, Rodri ranks as the eighth-highest in Europe’s top five leagues, with 59 pressures received per 30 minutes in possession. City’s ball-dominant style draws the opposition towards them but Rodri is trusted to spring them out.

Alongside this, we can look at the share of pressured situations where possession was retained by midfielders this season. By this metric, only Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos had a higher rate than Rodri’s 92 per cent ball retention under pressure.

He almost appears to see things in slow motion, understanding exactly what is about to happen and making, in a split second, the right decision to ensure his team come out with an advantage.

His days as a centre-back for Spain are over following the retirement of Sergio Busquets, so he will be at the heart of the action as Luis de la Fuente’s side look for international glory once again.

Sam Lee

Photo:
Getty Images
Spain
Manchester City
MID
Group B
Group C

Rasmus Hojlund

FWD

Denmark
🇩🇰
AGE:
21
CAPS:
14
CLUB:
Manchester United

A diplomatic summary of Rasmus Hojlund’s first season at Manchester United would be that it has been… mixed.

Having arrived at Old Trafford for £71million ($91m) from Atalanta in the summer, it took Hojlund 14 Premier League games to bag his first goal, against Aston Villa in December. Fast forward to the final day against Brighton and the 21-year-old’s goal brought him to double figures for the campaign in the Premier League — a solid foundation for the upcoming 2024-25 season.

It has been an unquestionably difficult season for United on multiple fronts and Hojlund has occasionally been the poster boy for such struggles. Hamstring and back injury issues have not helped proceedings. 

However, a closer look at the performances and movement from the Denmark international highlighted how his runs were into the right areas, but he was being starved of service. Just 1.6 non-penalty shots per 90 minutes is not a return befitting of a Manchester United striker. 

What is clear is that he gets into good positions and attacks the box well to ensure those shots are of high quality, if not high quantity. Hojlund averages 0.2 expected goals per shot in the Premier League, suggesting he should score one in every five attempts — only a handful of forwards have a higher average shot quality. 

His penchant for running across the opposition defender to finish first time is an attribute that he honed at Atalanta. Despite his youth, he senses where the space is to exploit defences. Matched with a decent finishing quality and a more varied shot selection than he is given credit for, you wonder why that service has been in short supply in a United shirt.

Things have come a lot easier for Hojlund on the international stage. Seven goals in 14 caps for Denmark, including a hat-trick in a 3-1 win against Finland in his first senior start, suggests Hojlund is comfortable representing his country. He will arrive in Germany as Denmark’s most potent attacking threat and the message to his team-mates is simple — feed him and he will score.

Mark Carey

Photo:
Getty Images
Denmark
Manchester United
FWD
Group C

Jude Bellingham

MID

England
🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿
AGE:
20
CAPS:
29
CLUB:
Real Madrid

Somewhat unusually for a young Englishman, Jude Bellingham is proving he is world-class by playing abroad rather than in the Premier League. He played just 41 English league games, all in the second tier for Birmingham City four seasons ago, many of them behind closed doors. It might be a long time before he plays league football in England again.

As a consequence, there’s a slightly unusual attitude to Bellingham in England. Everyone knows he has thrived at Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid — they’ve seen the highlights, they can see the statistics — but only in the biggest Champions League games and big England games have most English fans watched him for 90 minutes. They are certainly impressed by Bellingham but are probably still waiting to fall in love with him.

Bellingham was originally considered to be a box-to-box central midfielder but at Real Madrid, he was pushed forward to become a free-running attacker — not so much a false nine as a prolific goalscoring midfielder who popped up in the box at the right time. He credits Carlo Ancelotti, a manager who appreciates the need to give key players freedom, with turning him into a regular goalscorer. He managed 19 in his first La Liga season, including late winners in both league Clasicos.

That said, the goals dried up a little in the second half of the season and he was more regularly fielded from the left of a four-man midfield in big games.

For England, his obvious position is as a No 10, at the top of a midfield trio and behind Harry Kane, who likes midfielders to make runs off him and in behind. However, the slight doubt is that Gareth Southgate lacks a solid midfield partner for Declan Rice but has plenty of attacking options — Phil Foden was voted the Premier League’s best player and Cole Palmer has come from nowhere to put himself in contention.

It’s not unreasonable to think England’s best approach could be using Foden, Palmer and Bukayo Saka behind Kane, with Bellingham re-deployed in a deeper midfield role alongside Rice. It wouldn’t be his optimum position, but international football is about finding balance and, often, about compromising. It would be equivalent to Paul Pogba’s role at World Cup 2018.

That remains a secondary option. Bellingham is likely to start as a No 10, regularly popping up in the box and hoping to become only the 11th man to win Europe’s main club and international tournaments in the same summer.

Michael Cox

Photo:
Getty Images
England
Real Madrid
MID
Group C

Bukayo Saka

FWD

England
🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿
AGE:
22
CAPS:
33
CLUB:
Arsenal

Aside from Harry Kane on 62, Bukayo Saka is the only England player in Gareth Southgate’s squad to have reached double figures in goals.

His 11 goals in 33 caps since debuting in October 2020 capture a player who is mature beyond his years when it comes to the hard numbers.

The 22-year-old is not the silkiest of right-wingers. He does not produce slaloming dribbles too often, but who needs tricks when your simple and direct style is so effective?

Saka’s superpower is his efficiency.

It is the quality that all young forwards search for and most never find, but it has been within his gift from a young age.

His former Arsenal academy team-mates recall how when he performed a ’Maradona’ spin around the Manchester United goalkeeper as a youth player, their reaction was one of shock as they were used to him obliterating opponents in a powerful straight line.

He has the recovery powers of a bionic man and that durability has seen him play 311 times since making his senior debut in November 2018.

His combined assists and goals total has improved virtually every year since he became a regular in the 2019-20 season: 16, 16, 19, 26 and, this term, 33.

His strength with his back to goal is freakish for a player of his stature, but that is where his reliability stems from. He rarely loses the ball and provides his team with a platform to sustain attacks.

When isolated against a full-back, Saka can seem a little hesitant at times, but his decision-making in judging risk versus reward outstrips the vast majority of attackers.

After coming through the youth system playing on the left flank, Saka’s game has become about cutting inside onto his strong left foot and looking to link or cross to the back post.

Even when he is struggling to penetrate behind his opposition full-back, his ability to find space means he still usually finds high-quality cutback opportunities or striking positions inside the penalty area.

The sweet spot has always been the area inside the right corner of the box where he can curl his shot into the far post. He has jumped from an average of 2.1 shots per 90 minutes in his first full season to 3.1, with an expected-goals-per-shot figure of 0.11.

He has variety to his game, though, and his ability to drive on the outside and produce a rifled finish into the high near post with his weak foot has become another trademark. Mikel Arteta has further evolved his game at Arsenal by allowing him to drift infield to escape teams trapping him on the touchline.

With him running in behind more often, too, it feels like Saka is on the verge of going stratospheric.

Jordan Campbell

Photo:
Getty Images
England
Arsenal
FWD
Group C

Harry Kane

FWD

England
🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿
AGE:
30
CAPS:
91
CLUB:
Bayern Munich

Harry Kane will turn 31 two weeks after the conclusion of this summer’s European Championship. He has achieved so much in his career and yet also so little.

He is Tottenham Hotspur’s all-time leading scorer, second behind Alan Shearer in the Premier League’s charts, and he smashed in 36 Bundesliga goals in his first season with Bayern Munich, a career-best (see graphic below). No one in Europe’s major five leagues came within eight goals of that number.

And yet, Kane hasn’t actually won any trophies. That was par for the course at Tottenham and his inability to help them over the line should hardly be considered a failure.

However, joining Bayern Munich for the first season in 12 years that they failed to win the title was surely something of an embarrassment for Kane, even if, once again, his form was excellent. Considering Bayern’s feeble attempts to line up a manager for next season — they eventually settled on Vincent Kompany, who had just been relegated from the Premier League with Burnley — Kane must wonder quite what he’s got himself into.

Until the move to Bayern, international football seemed Kane’s most likely chance of winning a major trophy. At World Cup 2018, he had a strange tournament, winning the Golden Boot, although his goals came primarily from penalties or set pieces and he was actually more impressive in his link play, feeding onrushing runners.

His ability to come short and play balls in behind makes him more than a typical No 9. At Euro 2020, he scored three goals — although he made little impact on the final — while at World Cup 2022, his wild missed penalty sent England home after a narrow quarter-final loss to France. 

He is England’s all-time leading goalscorer, their captain during a spell of relative success, yet there’s a sense that he needs to deliver more to be remembered as an all-time great.

Kane has a strange reputation in England. Few deny his quality and it seems clear that he’s a humble figure away from the pitch, content with a quiet family life rather than being a celebrity — yet it seems many people have enjoyed Kane’s failings.

Playing in a side featuring a brilliant array of attacking midfielders, Kane is in a brilliant position to achieve something historic this summer. Having been mocked for not winning a trophy in England, and then in Germany, it will be ironic if he ends up breaking his trophy duck by winning a trophy with England in Germany.

Michael Cox

Photo:
Getty Images
England
Bayern Munich
FWD
Group C

Phil Foden

MID

England
🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿
AGE:
24
CAPS:
34
CLUB:
Manchester City

It was pretty amusing towards the end of last year when Gareth Southgate defended his decision not to play Phil Foden in the middle of the pitch for England, causing uproar among the many people who want to see him play exactly there this summer, only for Pep Guardiola to back up all the reasons a few days later.

The general thinking was that Foden was not defensively minded enough and might give the ball away by trying to force the issue when his team needed to take a breath. 

Guardiola had been banging that drum for years but, interestingly, that all changed around Christmas. 

Foden had made a mistake in the dying moments against Crystal Palace, losing the ball by dribbling through midfield and then giving a penalty away after racing back to make amends, and the word around the City camp is that something clicked in the days afterwards.

Since then, Guardiola has been far more comfortable playing Foden in midfield and instead of focusing on what he lacks in his game, he was suddenly branding him “the best player in the Premier League” and hailing his ability to score match-winning goals.

That was until City beat Brighton in April when Guardiola went back to the old script.

”I said many times, Phil has a sixth gear, but he cannot play all the time in the sixth gear. 

”I would love to go in sixth gear every single action but after, you are less precise. If you are in sixth gear and lose the ball all the time, that is not effective.”

There is no question, though, that Foden has put together a phenomenal season for City wherever he has played, including on the wing moving inside. A ‘proper’ central berth, though, where he starts and stays in the middle, is where everybody seems to want him to play, whether a fan of City or England.

There is something special about the way he receives and moves with the ball and that is amplified when it is through the middle of the pitch, when he is in traffic but always seems to come out unscathed, darting towards goal.

He has always scored goals during his years with the City first team, but in the final months of last season, he really started racking them up and they were pretty much all important ones, too. Hat-tricks against Brentford and Aston Villa, a winner at Bournemouth, two against Manchester United, a screamer against Real Madrid, an important second at Fulham.

“Now he is winning games,” Guardiola said in March. “To become world class you have to win games.”

That seems to be the path that Foden is on, the only question is how (where) he will get there.

Sam Lee

Photo:
Getty Images
England
Manchester City
MID
Group C

Declan Rice

MID

England
🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿
AGE:
25
CAPS:
51
CLUB:
Arsenal

With more top-class attacking players than any other side, expectations for Euro 2024 are high in England.

You could argue that Harry Kane was the best player in the Bundesliga this season, Jude Bellingham the best in La Liga, and Phil Foden the best in the Premier League. But, in something of a reprisal of the debate about the England national side from 20 years ago, who will play the disciplined holding role in midfield?

Declan Rice may or may not be the answer to that question. The doubt comes from the fact that Rice’s best performances for Arsenal this season have generally come when playing as a No 8, given licence to push forward into attack rather than as the side’s deepest midfielder. He has thrived in a more attacking side than West Ham United, whom he captained to Europa Conference League success in his final game at the club. 

One thing is for certain. Wherever Rice does play, you can guarantee that he will eat up the ground and make those long strides count when out of possession. The sheer scale of his defensive actions is shown below, where no area of the pitch is off-limits.

Rice has always been a blank canvas in a positional sense because he’s such an all-rounder — when he emerged at West Ham, he was considered a promising centre-back and was inevitably compared to Bobby Moore.

It’s not as simple as playing Rice in his best position for his club because England lack other reliable central midfielders. Indeed, if it were possible, Gareth Southgate would probably field two Rices — one as his deepest midfielder, another pushing on a little. When England reached the final of Euro 2024, Rice played deep with Kalvin Phillips pushing surprisingly high up alongside him. When Rice has played alongside Jordan Henderson, it’s usually been the same situation. But neither the out-of-form Phillips nor the unfit Henderson are in the squad. 

Rice’s likeliest partner is Manchester United’s Kobbie Mainoo, who hadn’t made his first Premier League start this time last year. Mainoo initially appeared to be a holding player, happy to receive the ball in tight positions and leave the attacking to others. But as his man-of-the-match performance in the FA Cup final showed, Mainoo can push forward dangerously, too.

Rice’s role, at this point, is a little unclear, but he never looks out of his depth or uncomfortable in any situation. A physical presence, a good ball carrier and excellent at getting around the pitch to put in tackles, he also offers a goal threat from open play. Bellingham has been routinely described as a future England captain, but Rice might be the next in line.

Michael Cox

Photo:
Getty Images
England
Arsenal
MID
Group C

Strahinja Pavlovic

DEF

Serbia
🇷🇸
AGE:
23
CAPS:
35
CLUB:
Red Bull Salzburg

Strahinja Pavlovic calls football his first love. When he was growing up in Sabac, an hour outside Belgrade, he tried every sport available to him. Football was the one that stole his heart.

‘Pavlo’, as he is often called, is only 23 but has already played in the top leagues in Serbia, France (with Monaco), Belgium, Switzerland and now Austria.

The centre-back’s idol is compatriot Nemanja Vidic. A compliment to Pavlovic’s game would be to say he takes the same do-or-die approach as the former Manchester United titan. What stands out about Pavlovic is his eagerness to charge out and thrust himself into a tackle or a block. It is these moments he is constantly building himself up for.

At the World Cup in 2022, he started all three group games as Serbia finished last behind Brazil, Switzerland and Cameroon. Still, he came away from the tournament with a lot of new admirers. His headed goal in the opening game against Cameroon pointed to his quality in the air. His celebration outlined his passion.

Near the river’s edge in Sabac stands the remains of a fortress that dates back to the 1400s. Pavlovic plays with the clunk and bounce of an old knight defending such a place. This is illuminated by his defending intensity and ability to disrupt opposition moves, and he also ranks highly for ball recoveries and interceptions.

As you can see from his smarterscout profile — which gives players a series of ratings from zero to 99 — he might not make for the most progressive passer (32 out of 99), but much like his hero Vidic, this does not affect his game. Pavlovic frequently carries the ball out from defence (carry and dribble volume, 84 out of 99), but he is a defender who enjoys defending first and foremost.

The former Liverpool assistant manager Pep Lijnders, now in charge at Red Bull Salzburg, will be grateful to inherit him this summer.

Caoimhe O’Neill

Photo:
Getty Images
Serbia
Red Bull Salzburg
DEF
Group C

Jan Oblak

GK

Slovenia
🇸🇮
AGE:
31
CAPS:
65
CLUB:
Atletico Madrid

After being one of European club football’s top goalkeepers through the past decade, Slovenia’s Jan Oblak finally has a chance to show his talents in an international tournament this summer.

Since joining Atletico Madrid from Benfica for a bargain €16million (£13.6m; $17.3m) in 2014, Oblak has built a reputation as one of the world’s best goalkeepers thanks to his tremendous reflexes and reliability. Along the way, he has won six trophies, including the 2017-18 Europa League and 2020-21 La Liga, plus a record five ‘Zamora’ awards as La Liga’s best goalkeeper.

A traditional shot-stopper, Oblak grew up playing many sports, including basketball and Olympic handball, which helped to hone his handling, footwork and dexterity. His father was a soccer goalkeeper, while his older sister, Teja, played basketball for Slovenia. Fellow countryman and NBA star Luka Doncic is a close friend, from when Doncic played for Real Madrid’s basketball team between 2015 and 2018. 

Oblak’s club form has fluctuated in recent seasons, not being helped by Atletico’s previously teak-tough defence weakening significantly. Oblak went 13 games without a clean sheet during the 2023-24 campaign, the longest run during Diego Simeone’s time as coach. But he showed his quality with two penalty saves in the shootout as Atletico beat Inter Milan in the last 16 of this season’s Champions League.

This return to form is shown in his ’goals prevented’ metrics, which reflect a goalkeeper’s shot-stopping performance relative to the number of goals they should have conceded based on the quality of the shot. After a tricky first half to the season, Oblak has regained some form heading into the summer.

He made his international debut in 2012, when on loan from Benfica at Rio Ave, and has been first choice for Slovenia since ousting Samir Handanovic in 2016. Conceding just six goals in his eight Euro 2024 qualifiers, including clean sheets against Finland and Northern Ireland, he was crucial to Slovenia reaching their first international tournament since the 2010 World Cup.

A strong-silent type off the pitch, Oblak is not afraid to speak up if he feels his team needs it. Their captain’s reflexes and leadership will be crucial in Germany if Slovenia are to progress from Group C ahead of Serbia, Denmark and England. 

Over the years, Oblak has regularly been linked with a move to England — he turned down Fulham as a teenager, while Manchester United and Chelsea have tracked his progress more recently. Atletico’s financial issues mean they could be open to an offer this summer, which would be more likely if Oblak can do something extra special at this European Championship.

Dermot Corrigan

Photo:
Getty Images
Slovenia
Atletico Madrid
GK
Group C

Benjamin Sesko

FWD

Slovenia
🇸🇮
AGE:
21
CAPS:
29
CLUB:
RB Leipzig

Benjamin Sesko is obsessed with brushing his teeth — up to four or five times a day, he told an RB Leipzig camera crew, documenting a day in his life. Radece, the small town in Slovenia where he grew up, was known for its paper industry, where its riverside location meant it has always been a conduit to bigger and brighter places.

Suitable, it seems, for one of the cleanest prospects to emerge off the Red Bull group’s player conveyor belt. Just shy of two metres tall, coaches initially thought he would become a goalkeeper like his father Ales, but the younger Sesko found the position too boring.

Instead, his natural athleticism meant any position would have been an option for him — he is capable of kicking a basketball wedged between the hoop and the backboard from its place.

He settled as a striker, scoring more than 50 goals in a single season for his local club, and within 18 months he had offers from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and Ajax. 

Sesko is 21 years old but already knows the ebbs and flows of being an elite striker — the transfer storm, the pressure, the doubt. After joining Red Bull Salzburg and then graduating to the group’s flagship club, RB Leipzig, Sesko initially found goals hard to come by, scoring just five times before the winter break during his first season in Germany in 2022-23.

Eventually, the goals began to flow, scoring in Leipzig’s last seven Bundesliga matches this season. Only Stuttgart’s Serhou Guirassy overperformed against his expected goals more than Sesko across all players in the Bundesliga.

In attack, he likes to drift wide to explore space on the right wing — the system at RB Leipzig, where he forms a duo with Belgium international Lois Openda, helps facilitate this. 

Slovenia are also likely to play him as part of a strike duo in a 4-4-2. As his country’s main attacking outlet, he typically remains more central. Through his mother, Sladana, Sesko was also eligible to play for Bosnia & Herzegovina but opted for the nation where he was raised, who last qualified for a major tournament in 2010.

He has been linked with a move to the Premier League for the past two summers — there has been firm interest from Manchester United and Newcastle United, while he has also been tracked by Arsenal. There is space for his finishing and link-up play to improve, but with his existing raw ingredients, it is a matter of time before a major club takes the leap.

Jacob Whitehead

Photo:
Getty Images
Slovenia
RB Leipzig
FWD
Group C
Group D

Marko Arnautovic

FWD

Austria
🇦🇹
AGE:
35
CAPS:
112
CLUB:
Inter Milan

Marko Arnautovic has played for a title-winning side twice in his career. He won Serie A with Inter in the 2009-10 and 2023-24 seasons.

So what was he doing for the intervening 13 years?

Well, there was a decent three-year spell in Germany with Werder Bremen, a frustrating three and a half years for Stoke City, and then a move to West Ham United, where he was rejuvenated by David Moyes’ decision to field him as a conventional striker rather than as a speedy wide player.

He briefly seemed West Ham’s most important player, but then came a sudden move to Shanghai SIPG in China, an unexpected transfer to Bologna and then, most surprisingly, a loan back at Inter. Arnautovic’s club career has been unpredictable.

But at international level, Arnautovic is the most-capped player in Austria’s history and a veteran of the Euro 2016 and Euro 2020 campaigns. Despite rarely completing 90 minutes, he remains one of the side’s leaders, scoring the first goal of Ralf Rangnick’s reign and also netting twice in Austria’s most important victory in qualification, a 3-1 win at Sweden.

As shown below, Arnautovic has scored the most international goals of any player in the Austria squad going into this summer’s tournament.

Arnautovic also has a reputation for getting himself into trouble and at the last European Championship, he was banned after celebrating wildly in the face of two North Macedonian opponents, who accused him of using racist insults. UEFA didn’t find him guilty of racism but did ban him for the ‘insulting’ gesture.

In his early days, Arnautovic was an explosive all-rounder who could dribble dangerously and hold up the ball in central positions. Now 35, Arnautovic is increasingly static and his impact is generally restricted to the opposition penalty box, which doesn’t mesh with Rangnick’s demands for intensity and pressing.

But he remains a handy option and his poaching instincts have proved crucial for Inter this season, most obviously when he scored the only goal as a second-half substitute in the 1-0 Champions League home victory over Atletico Madrid, converting a rebound. That left-footed finish, struck from six yards, was his longest-range goal of the season and of the five he scored, three have been rebounds.

Austria aren’t blessed with other great striking options. Freiburg’s Michael Gregoritsch generally led the line in qualification when Austria used a sole striker, with Arnautovic coming into the side sporadically as his partner. Don’t expect to see Arnautovic completing 90 minutes, but also don’t be surprised if he pops up with a crucial goal.

Michael Cox

Photo:
Getty Images
Austria
Inter Milan
FWD
Group D

Antoine Griezmann

MID

France
🇫🇷
AGE:
33
CAPS:
129
CLUB:
Atletico Madrid

Antoine Griezmann goes into his sixth major international tournament with his role for club and country more influential than ever.

Last December, Griezmann became Atletico Madrid’s record goalscorer, passing the previous mark of 174 set by club legend Luis Aragones. 

The 33-year-old finished the season with 24 goals in all competitions, which is especially impressive given he has also been Atletico’s most important creator since he rejoined from Barcelona in 2021.

From this withdrawn role, he can use his vision and range of passing to put team-mates into promising positions. A glance at his most common passing clusters (of 20-plus yards) shows a player who will pop up all over the pitch and take the role of his side’s key metronome in possession.

Griezmann’s international career has followed a similar path. At his first European Championship in 2016, he scored six times as France reached the final on home soil.

Lately, he has also been pulling the strings from deeper, with Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Olivier Giroud ahead of him in attack. This system worked well as France won the 2018 World Cup and they reached the final in Qatar two years ago before losing to Argentina, but they stalled at the last Euros in 2021 when Didier Deschamps’ side crashed out to Switzerland in the last 16. 

Griezmann’s 44 international goals (from 129 senior caps) put him fourth on their all-time scorer list, with Mbappe (47) and Giroud (57) third and first on the list. No player can match Griezmann’s 38 assists for France — another sign of just how important he has been and still can be.

Such numbers and significance are extraordinary considering Griezmann was rejected by Lyon as a kid for being too small and left France aged 13 to start his career at La Liga’s Real Sociedad.  

A boyhood fan of David Beckham and a former Barcelona team-mate of Lionel Messi, he has spoken about finishing his playing career in MLS. A lover of the NFL, especially the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, he has even co-hosted a YouTube show about the sport called ‘Grizi Huddle’.

Any potential move stateside appears a few years off yet given Griezmann is under contract at the Metropolitano until 2026 and very close to the Atletico coach Diego Simeone. 

The final months of the 2023-24 club season were not the happiest, however, with an ankle issue hampering Griezmann as Atletico finished the season trophyless.

The Euros bring a chance for him to create more history with Les Bleus.

Dermot Corrigan

Photo:
Getty Images
France
Atletico Madrid
MID
Group D

Warren Zaire-Emery

MID

France
🇫🇷
AGE:
18
CAPS:
3
CLUB:
PSG

It was a challenge to bring Warren Zaire-Emery through Paris Saint-Germain’s academy, not because of any misbehaviour on his part, but through other unforeseen circumstances.

“We felt that paradoxically, everything was becoming counterproductive for the team because when he lost the ball, Warren compensated for everything,” said Bafode Diakite, one of his early coaches at PSG’s Poissy training base. “He rebalanced everything and the others around made less effort. I reminded the other players that Warren was not the firefighter on duty.”

Despite Paris’ status as the best talent-producing factory in Europe, PSG have struggled to bring homegrown talent into their team of established superstars. Their Parisien players, generally, have been developed at other clubs, such as the departing Kylian Mbappe (Monaco), Randal Kolo Muani (Nantes/Eintracht Frankfurt), and Nordi Mukiele (Laval).

Zaire-Emery, the son of a lower-league footballer from the banlieues, is an exception, cementing himself in PSG’s first team at 16 years old. His physical development, far ahead of his peers, allowed him to survive in Ligue 1 and the Champions League, but it is his technical quality and tactical understanding that mean he shines.

He already has variety in his ball progression — he ranks in the top eight per cent of central midfielders for progressive carries in this season’s Champions League, and is in the competition’s top 10 per cent for passing accuracy.

In fact, honing in on under-23 midfielders across Europe’s top five leagues, you can see not only how much the teenager gets on the ball, but just how proficient he is at retaining possession for PSG.

“It’s hard to say one attribute, I’m scared to forget one,” Yohan Cabaye, PSG’s assistant academy director, told The Athletic last September.

PSG head coach Luis Enrique is an adaptive manager and already prizes Zaire-Emery for his versatility, selecting him as part of a double pivot, as a No 8, and even occasionally as a wing-back when playing three centre-backs.

Perhaps his most illustrative performance came in PSG’s 4-1 defeat at Newcastle United in the Champions League group stage — where despite his team-mates being overrun as Luis Enrique opted for a bold but naive 4-2-4, Zaire-Emery was comfortably his side’s best player, creating their only goal.

”I’ve never seen a player as intelligent as he is in compensating for what his team-mates do,” Luis Enrique said later in the season. Firefighter once more — but now at the very top.

France’s squad is the most talented at Euro 2024, but Zaire-Emery still has an outside chance of playing himself into the starting XI. Didier Deschamps has switched between playing a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 in the build-up — and though Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga are near certainties to start, Zaire-Emery could yet be the third man in the latter system.

Jacob Whitehead

Photo:
Getty Images
France
PSG
MID
Group D

Kylian Mbappe

FWD

France
🇫🇷
AGE:
25
CAPS:
79
CLUB:
Real Madrid

This is going to be a big summer for Kylian Mbappe.

The 25-year-old has left Paris Saint-Germain and will join Real Madrid after the Euros. 

But there will be a new experience with the national team, too. This European Championship will be his first major tournament as captain of France. It heralds the start of a new chapter in his career, one that most expect will elevate his status to a new level.

Not that there are doubts about his standing within the game. This is a player who has scored in consecutive World Cup finals, the first to score as a teenager in a final since Pele for Brazil in 1958, and the first to score a hat-trick on that same stage since Geoff Hurst for England in 1966.

In the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, he was the inspiration for one of the greatest showpiece finals of all time, following an exceptional tournament. He had more touches in the opposition box, created more chances and scored more goals than any other player, while only Lionel Messi could match his goal involvements (10). He was 23.

Mbappe is a player for the big stage, a global superstar entering the prime years of his career. For PSG, he has remained essential despite off-field distractions concerning his future. He was the first player in Europe’s top-five leagues to be directly involved in 40-plus goals across all competitions in 2023-24 and it only took him 34 games. He leaves Paris with a heap of records, including as the club’s all-time record goalscorer. His latest Ligue 1 golden boot was his sixth in a row, the first time any player has achieved that in French top-flight history.

His abilities are well-known yet remain very difficult to stop. He is most threatening when stepping off the left side, driving at defenders who struggle to read or stop him. He has a trademark finish, shaping to bend the ball into the far corner before quickly striking at the near post. It is a move he has perfected over time and he can pull off both finishes at will, which makes him almost undefendable from the ‘Mbappe Zone’.

His speed of movement and thought, coupled with a technical ability that is not compromised by his quickness, make him such a fearsome opponent.

For France, he is integral, thriving when playing off the No 9, Olivier Giroud. He has scored 47 goals from 78 international appearances and trails only Thierry Henry (51) and Giroud (57) on France’s all-time top scorer list.

Deschamps’ decision to appoint him as captain before European qualifying could be considered surprising and unsurprising. Some anticipated Antoine Griezmann would be given the armband — but this is Mbappe and this appointment was a reflection of his leadership on and off the field.

The stage is now set for Mbappe to lead. In an interview with GQ in January, he showed he was aware of that: “Many great players who have shaped the history of football have left Europe this summer and we are entering a new era.”

This new era may well be defined by Mbappe and this first major tournament as the captain of France, before a major transfer, may well indicate the direction of travel.

Peter Rutzler

Photo:
Getty Images
France
Real Madrid
FWD
Group D

Bradley Barcola

FWD

France
🇫🇷
AGE:
21
CAPS:
2
CLUB:
PSG

Franck Ribery, Djibril Cisse and now… Bradley Barcola?

The 21-year-old winger follows in some famous footsteps by earning his first senior call-up on the eve of a major tournament. But few were surprised by Didier Deschamps’ decision after an impressive first season at Paris Saint-Germain. More than anything, it just reflects his rapid rise over the past 18 months.

Wind the clock back to December 2022, when Deschamps was guiding France to a second consecutive World Cup final, and Barcola was out of sight and mind at Lyon. An academy product of Les Gones, he was stuck in the reserves, contemplating a loan move to Switzerland.

But his fortunes were about to change.

A combination of team-mate Karl Toko-Ekambi kicking a bin and falling out with the club’s supporters, as well as an eye-catching showing on a mid-season trip to Dubai, would open the door to the first team. He seized it with both hands, becoming one of Lyon’s most impressive performers. By the end of the summer, he was bought by PSG for €45million (£38.3m; $49m), with €5million in potential add-ons depending on appearances.

Most anticipated that Barcola would be a squad player for PSG as they entered a new ‘post-galacticos’ era this past season, not least as his favoured position was occupied by Kylian Mbappe, off the left wing. But after a tentative start, notably with a tricky cameo against Newcastle United in the Champions League group phase, he slowly forced his way into Luis Enrique’s starting line-up. Now, in the space of a single season, he has become a key part of France’s best attack.

It is Barcola’s wing play that has made him so favoured by Luis Enrique. The Spanish coach has built a team around dynamic and effective wide players, with Ousmane Dembele on one side and Barcola on the other. PSG aim to find Barcola one-on-one with a full-back, where he can inflict the most damage. Only Dembele has received more ’progressive passes’ (below) than Barcola across all players in Ligue 1. Finding him in the final third is essential.

His trademark is to break to the byline for a cutback or a sharp finish at the near post. He has a slight frame and is very quick, and not in a one-dimensional way. ”You have players who can sprint and cross, but him, he can sprint and then do a second sprint,” Franck Passi, former assistant manager at Lyon, told The Athletic in May. ”We call this a ‘second velocity’. He sprints and then, when the defenders reach him, sprints again and leaves the defender behind. This is fantastic.”

Barcola’s progress has been as quick as his footwork in recent times. The next challenge for him is to impress on the international stage. Considering his rapid rise, you would not bet against this rising star shining even brighter this summer.

Peter Rutzler

Photo:
Getty Images
France
PSG
FWD
Group D

Jeremie Frimpong

DEF

Netherlands
🇳🇱
AGE:
23
CAPS:
3
CLUB:
Bayer Leverkusen

What a year for Jeremie Frimpong. A Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal champion and a runner-up in the Europa League, he and Bayer Leverkusen were unbeaten in domestic competitions and so nearly perfect across all three.

Frimpong’s path through the game has been rapid. A Manchester City academy graduate who began his career as a right-winger, he joined Leverkusen in 2021 after 18 months at Celtic, where he had been used as an attacking full-back.

By his admission, he arrived in the Bundesliga as a raw player who was too dependent upon his speed and too confident in his ability to beat opponents one-on-one. He was guilty of turning the ball over too often and playing too aggressively.

Now 23, those imperfections have melted away. Frimpong’s success under Xabi Alonso has come in retaining a pared-back version of his individualism while becoming a component player. Often Leverkusen’s most advanced attacker, even from wing-back, many of Frimpong’s best moments in 2023-24 relied not just upon his speed and skill, but also his timing and appreciation for the tactical dynamics around him. Within the context of their season, it was remarkable how often he found himself in the right place at the right time.

Looking at his chances created, there is a clear pattern of Frimpong arriving deep into the opposition third to pop up in the right half-space and pull the ball back to the penalty spot for an oncoming team-mate.

The older he gets, the more versatile he becomes. Towards the end of the Bundesliga and European seasons, he was even used in a No 10 role, and while his finishing and composure in attacking positions require some work, he certainly has the attributes to be a problem in that role.

The same is true defensively. Beyond the jovial personality he shows on television, Frimpong is self-critical. Talk to him and he will tell you that he needs to develop his awareness without the ball and improve his positioning so he is less dependent upon his recovery speed.

Fair points but neither should disguise what a dangerous, destructive player he already is at club level.   

His international career has been more complicated. Frimpong was born in Amsterdam but raised in England and speaks little Dutch. That has been a bone of contention. Despite his club form, he was not capped by head coach Ronald Koeman until the autumn of 2023. Koeman intentionally left him out of the senior squad as punishment for rejecting the opportunity to represent the Dutch under-21s over the summer and, even now, the relationship between the two is not the easiest.

Denzel Dumfries remains the first-choice right wing-back, despite Frimpong’s form (he was outstanding in the warm-up win against Canada) and if results are disappointing, that could quickly become an unwelcome sub-plot for Koeman to contend with.

Seb Stafford-Bloor

Photo:
Getty Images
Netherlands
Bayer Leverkusen
DEF
Group D

Teun Koopmeiners

MID

Netherlands
🇳🇱
AGE:
26
CAPS:
21
CLUB:
Atalanta

Vultures are circling Atalanta’s midfield.

While the club hopes to retain its Brazilian Pacman, Ederson, for another season, Teun Koopmeiners feels his time in Bergamo is up. The Netherlands international has evolved like few other players on the continent since his move from AZ Alkmaar three years ago. Koopmeiners has a past as a left-sided centre-back, but he has played almost every role in midfield at Atalanta.

This season, he has rivalled Jude Bellingham in output from midfield. Koopmeiners has scored 16 times and laid on six assists in all competitions. He is Atalanta’s top scorer and stepped up while the club adjusted to a new forward line after the sale of Rasmus Hojlund to Manchester United, and then through the winter when Ademola Lookman was away at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Entering his prime at 26, Koopmeiners is willing to consider a new challenge after reaching the Coppa Italia and Europa League finals in a historic season for the Dea. ”I told the club that I want to move next summer, but something really interesting has to come along. I also read about the interest of Juve and some Premier League clubs. I hope Atalanta will get a good amount of money for me.”

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini let it be known he thought the team’s rivals were trying to turn Koopmeiners’ head. ”At this time of the season, there are clubs who aren’t in the cups and so rumours like these are fuelled by the ones that have little to do. And maybe they wonder if it’s right a club like Atalanta is in the latter stages (of European competition), so these things come up,” he said, alluding, perhaps, to Juventus after comments made in the past by former chairman Andrea Agnelli.

A decent Euro 2024 on the back of his best season at Atalanta would help Koopmeiners get his dual wish of a move and for the club to get a sizable return on their original €14million (£12m; $15m) investment. His contract is set to expire in 2025.

James Horncastle

Photo:
Getty Images
Netherlands
Atalanta
MID
Group D

Xavi Simons

FWD

Netherlands
🇳🇱
AGE:
21
CAPS:
13
CLUB:
RB Leipzig/PSG

After years of growing up quickly off the pitch, Xavi Simons is now doing the same on it.

A child prodigy and teenage internet sensation (you won’t regret spending five minutes of your time watching the little No 8 with blond curls playing for Barcelona Under-13s in the Republic of Ireland in 2016) has matured into one of Europe’s most exciting wide attackers.

It is less about the Instagram followers these days (approaching six million, in case you were wondering) and more about the numbers that really matter. A total of 31 goals and 27 assists for PSV Eindhoven and RB Leipzig across the last two seasons tell a story.

He was a creative force in the Bundesliga in 2023-24 and the numbers support this. Looking at Simons’ expected assists — which denote the expected goals value of the shot that is assisted — his rate of 0.33 per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga last season was only bettered by five players across the division.

Simons was born to play the game. Regillo, his father, was a professional footballer in the top flight in the Netherlands for the best part of a decade and named his youngest son after Xavi Hernandez, the Barcelona legend (Faustino, Xavi’s older brother, who shares the same birthday as him, was named after the Colombia striker Faustino Asprilla).

Raised in Spain, after his family relocated to Alicante when his father’s playing career finished, Simons signed for Barcelona aged seven and was catapulted into the spotlight, appearing in Nike commercials alongside Neymar and Ronaldinho as a kid.  

His career has been nomadic. At 21, he has already played in Ligue 1, the Eredivisie and the Bundesliga, left Barcelona, signed for Paris Saint-Germain, and rejoined the French club 12 months later after moving to PSV for a season. Are you keeping up? Most of his opponents aren’t.

A quick and dynamic runner with a sharp football brain and exceptional technique, Simons can score goals of every description and play any attacking role. He glides past defenders and is a centre-forward’s dream because of his ability to spot a through ball. As for the outside of his right foot, it’s a thing of beauty.

On top of all that, Simons has the fortitude to thrive at the highest level. “His mentality, his mindset – it’s unprecedented,” said Ruud van Nistelrooy, the former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker and his former coach at PSV Eindhoven.

All perfect, then? Not quite. Simons has not yet recaptured his club form in a Netherlands shirt. Note the word ‘yet’. Like most things with Simons, it’s when, not if, everything falls into place.

Stuart James

Photo:
Getty Images
Netherlands
RB Leipzig/PSG
FWD
Group D

Robert Lewandowski

FWD

Poland
🇵🇱
AGE:
35
CAPS:
149
CLUB:
Barcelona

Robert Lewandowski scores goals. What else is there to say?

He scores bangers with his left foot even though he’s right-footed. He scores on fast breaks even now, at 35 years old, though he’s never been particularly pacey. He scores off the dribble with a leggy, ungainly dribbling style that seems to confuse him as much as defenders. He scores free kicks. He scores penalties. He scores headers from improbable distances beyond the penalty spot.

Mostly, though, he scores striker goals: lasers off his powerful right boot, crosses headed or bundled home in the six-yard box, sneaky back post runs, clever bursts off a defender’s shoulder. He has distilled the art of goalscoring to its purest form, the irreducible skill of simply finding a way — any way — to put the ball in the net and sometimes it feels as though he could keep doing it forever.

This year, though, it started to look as though time might finally be catching up to him. Lewandowski scored just 15 non-penalty goals for Barcelona, his lowest total since 2010-11, the season he first broke into the top five leagues at Borussia Dortmund. Fans grumbled. His manager, Xavi, reportedly urged the club to move him on. Even one of the greatest goalscorers ever seen — he sits joint-ninth on the all-time goal charts (629 for club and country) — may come with an expiration date.

That’s an ominous sign for Poland, who often sputter when Lewandowski draws a blank. He went goalless at the 2018 World Cup as his country scored just once and bowed out in the group stage. At the last European Championship, he was responsible for three of Poland’s four goals. At the 2022 World Cup, he scored two of their three and assisted the other. As Lewandowski goes, historically, so go the red and white.

The good news is that dependence may be weakening. In Euro 2024 qualifiers, Lewandowski was the team’s leading scorer but hit just three goals, but the rest of the squad spread finishing duties around to add 11 more. In a critical playoff against Estonia, Poland scored five times — none of them by Lewandowski, who was content to drag defenders around as his team-mates exploited the space he created.

That may be the template at the Euros, where Poland will likely line up in a 3-5-2 with a striker pair. Lewandowski is guaranteed to attract all the attention while his strike partner, probably Hellas Verona’s Karol Swiderski after Juventus’ Arkadiusz Milik was ruled out of the tournament through injury, tries to take advantage of the pockets behind and around him.

Don’t count out Poland’s greatest goalscorer, though, who is not done adding to his record yet.

John Muller

Photo:
Getty Images
Poland
Barcelona
FWD
Group D
Group E

Johan Bakayoko

FWD

Belgium
🇧🇪
AGE:
21
CAPS:
12
CLUB:
PSV

Johan Bakayoko is following a well-trodden path at PSV Eindhoven: young wingers who earn their stripes on their way to Europe’s major leagues. For a team that prides itself on attacking displays and passing football, there is an understanding at the club that wingers become the match-winners.

Bakayoko is expected to fetch a fee higher than Hirving Lozano, Noni Madueke, Memphis Depay, Steven Bergwijn, Donyell Malen or Arjen Robben — all were signed by PSV as youngsters, or developed through their academy, and rank among their top 10 sales.

A left-footed right-winger in a 4-3-3, Bakayoko does more than cut inside and shoot. Often he is double-marked and delivers back-post crosses, perfect for the PSV No 9 Luuk De Jong. He is just as prepared to dribble on the outside and produce cutbacks. His return of 13 goals and 10 assists in all competitions last season is evidence of that — De Jong was the only other PSV player with double digits in both.

While many of his ’shot-creating actions’ — the two attacking actions that lead to a shot — come from those crosses and passes, a healthy smattering are from his aggressive dribbling, as shown below.

Bakayoko has just completed his second senior season, helping PSV win the Eredivisie for the first time since 2016. They poached him as a 16-year-old from Anderlecht and he spent two seasons with Jong PSV (their under-21s), playing against senior teams in the second-tier Eerste Divisie. That progress went hand-in-hand with his age group performances for Belgium — his father is Ivorian and his mother Rwandan, but Bakayoko opted to play for his country of birth.

He only made his senior international debut in September and has played 12 times, part of the emerging generation of Belgian talent.

Those who have watched Jeremy Doku’s move to Manchester City might put Bakayoko in the same category: a player with outstanding technique, speed and agility, but an inconsistent end product. Bakayoko, though, is closer in style to Eden Hazard and Leandro Trossard — an all-round winger who can go both ways, a passer as much as a dribbler or finisher, able to escape pressure and take contact. He has that confidence, too, and told The Athletic how he plans to be in the conversation for the Ballon d’Or in the next five years.

Bakayoko had the most progressive carries into the final third in the Eredivisie last season (101) and of the 15 players to attempt 100-plus dribbles in the league, his completion rate was the third-highest (53.2 per cent). He can be patchy and on a bad day is a moments player, but his inventiveness and capacity to play off the cuff warrants a place at a major tournament.

Liam Tharme

Photo:
Getty Images
Belgium
PSV
FWD
Group E

Jeremy Doku

FWD

Belgium
🇧🇪
AGE:
22
CAPS:
22
CLUB:
Manchester City

“For my team-mates, you can see that they are used to winning titles,” Jeremy Doku said after lifting the Premier League trophy in his debut season at Manchester City.

“They know how to handle these moments. Now I’m here for the first time, I’ve also got that mentality and when I go back to the national team, they will also see that I’ve changed.”

As Domenico Tedesco’s vibrant Belgium squad look to step out of the shadow of the previous ‘golden generation’, Doku could not have asked for a better environment to establish a winning mindset before a major tournament.

It has been a chaotic campaign for Doku since signing from Rennes last summer. After initially struggling to get up to speed, the 22-year-old ousted Jack Grealish to earn a spot on the left wing, before being restricted to the role of impactful substitute for the latter stages of the season.

Chaos is a word that often rolls off the tongue when discussing Doku. He is a throwback, a winger who loves to hug the touchline and face up his man before dribbling past them with a body feint or drop of the shoulder.

Opposition full-backs must be sick of the relentless unpredictability of Doku’s running when he has the ball. To highlight just how prolific he is, Doku’s 9.5 attempted take-ons per 90 minutes and 8.3 carries into the penalty area per 90 minutes are the highest rates of any player across Europe’s top five leagues — and by some distance.

“This guy… really, you don’t know what he is going to do,” Guardiola said of Doku this season and in some ways, that is a key area for him to improve.

For all of the flair, pace and trickery, the fact you cannot predict what Doku is going to do is part of why his end product can be lacking at the crucial moment. A return of three goals and eight assists from 29 games is fine for a first season in the Premier League, but his manager and those around him will expect him to improve on those numbers next campaign.

Despite this summer’s tournament being his second European Championship with Belgium, it is easy to forget that Doku only turned 22 in May and has so much attacking elegance to refine.

Nevertheless, this summer’s Jeremy Doku arrives as a Premier League winner.  

Mark Carey

Photo:
Getty Images
Belgium
Manchester City
FWD
Group E

Kevin De Bruyne

MID

Belgium
🇧🇪
AGE:
32
CAPS:
101
CLUB:
Manchester City

What else is there to say about Kevin De Bruyne?

Well, he might not actually be as dominant as previously, but he can be equally as dangerous. 

He ended the season with a remarkable six goals and 17 assists for Manchester City — the remarkable thing being that he only started his season in January after surgery on a serious hamstring injury.

There were questions about whether he would be used in a deeper role upon his return, an effort to save his legs as the 32-year-old gets towards the end of his career, but he operated high up the pitch, with City cramming as many players into the middle as possible, providing plenty of cover and support if the ball was lost.

At the end of the season, he said he had been playing higher than usual since his return. “I try to find space and (get) in pockets and give myself a little fraction of time so I can help my team-mates score as much as possible.”

Despite his higher position, it is interesting to see the evolution in the locations of his chances created over time (below). This season, when City have needed him to create from deep, those enticing, punchy forward passes are still firmly in his locker.

Without the ball, he is still asked to lead City’s press alongside Erling Haaland in a 4-4-2 and he still has the energy levels for that and plenty of other running besides.

He is still having a big impact on matches in terms of goal contributions, but there was a period in the spring as he battled on through some minor injury concerns that must have impacted his performances in certain big matches in particular, including against Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.

On those occasions, it seemed like nothing came off: never mind those passes nobody else can see, he was barely able to combine with any of his team-mates.

It might seem churlish to discuss performances like that when he clearly made such a huge contribution to City’s season regardless, but it is worth bearing in mind given Belgium cannot call on the number of top-level performers as they could in previous tournaments, and there might be more emphasis on De Bruyne to make the difference.

He has continued to show that if there is any space behind a defence to play into, he will play into it — something any team will have to be wary of this summer. If defenders are sucked away from their stations and towards the twinkle toes of Jeremy Doku on the wing, then shifting the ball to De Bruyne would be a good bet to take advantage.

De Bruyne can still be expected to make a difference in what could well be his final major tournament for his country.

Sam Lee

Photo:
Getty Images
Belgium
Manchester City
MID
Group E

Radu Dragusin

DEF

Romania
🇷🇴
AGE:
22
CAPS:
17
CLUB:
Tottenham

It’s funny how football works. Eric Dier has unexpectedly gone deep in the Champions League this season playing for Bayern Munich. That could have been Radu Dragusin. The Romanian turned down Bayern to join Tottenham Hotspur for £26million ($33m) over the winter, creating the opportunity for Dier to reunite with Harry Kane in Germany.

Opportunities for Dragusin at Tottenham, on the other hand, have been few and far between. He left a team that played a back three (Genoa) for one deploying a back four and joined as first-choice defenders Cristian Romero and Micky van de Ven returned from injury.

Dragusin has needed to learn patience, having clocked up just 429 Premier League minutes since moving to north London (below).

Still 22, Dragusin is raw and has a lot of room to improve, but he is a big personality and sets standards on the training ground. Giorgio Chiellini took him under his wing when he moved to Juventus as a teenager. The legendary Italian defender, who captained the Azzurri side that won the last Euros, saw his younger self in Dragusin and liked his mentality.

“I’d like to be a mix of Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt,” Dragusin said while at Juventus. “But Chiellini is my idol.” Dragusin played every game of Genoa’s promotion campaign and his coach, Alberto Gilardino, a former striker who knows a good defender when he sees one, was reluctant to lose him halfway through the club’s first season back in Serie A.

Dragusin’s mindset comes, in part, from being brought up by a family of Olympians. His father represented Romania in volleyball and his mother was on the basketball team. But instead of Paris, Dragusin will be in Germany this summer. He has what it takes to captain his country in the future and won’t lack offers if his pathway at Tottenham remains blocked. Atalanta competed for his signature in January and he continues to be held in high esteem in Italy.

James Horncastle

Photo:
Getty Images
Romania
Tottenham
DEF
Group E

David Hancko

DEF

Slovakia
🇸🇰
AGE:
26
CAPS:
38
CLUB:
Feyenoord

To watch Feyenoord is to watch David Hancko. Arne Slot earned the Liverpool job after transforming the Rotterdam club into one of the most stylish teams in Europe and the Slovakian centre-back was key to their build-up play.

Hancko’s biggest strength is his variety. No player completed more passes in the Dutch Eredivisie last season (2,671), nearly 10 per cent more than the second-most. He also made the most progressive carries among centre-backs in the entire division, frequently the beneficiary of a rapid interchange to advance to halfway before he was trusted to play the line-breaking pass. 

That is reflected in his smarterscout profile — which gives players a series of ratings from zero to 99 — where his carry and dribble volume (92 out of 99) is crucial to advancing his team up the field and getting the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 91 out of 99).

Some of this is due to Feyenoord’s status as one of the Netherlands’ most ball-dominant sides, but it also speaks to his natural attacking instincts, developed as a wing-back in the youth academy of MSK Zilina. His hometown, Prievidza, was a centre for the Czechoslovakian resistance in the Second World War and also the home of former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, the team he grew up supporting.

“It all started with the Istanbul Champions League final in 2005, which my parents allowed me to watch until the end and I didn’t have to go to bed even when extra time was going on,” he said. “And then came Skrtel.”

Hancko has spoken openly about his desire to one day feature in the Premier League and his quality in possession means that is a realistic proposition. However, he had to overcome a difficult period early in his career, as a major move to Fiorentina as a 21-year-old went disastrously wrong after he was benched by coach Stefano Pioli and was then sent out on loan after just six months.

However, former Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky, working as sporting director at Sparta Prague, suggested that Hancko move to centre-back — and he rebuilt his reputation in the Czech capital.

There, he met and married former Czech tennis star Kristyna Pliskova, before being signed permanently by Feyenoord for €6million (£5.1m; $6.5m) in 2022. 

“I found it completely bizarre that in De Kuip people cheer as loudly for a good tackle as for an offensive action,” he said soon after signing. “I’m still not used to that.”

For Slovakia, coach Francesco Calzona will often play him as a left-back in a 4-3-3, where he has a good relationship with veteran winger Robert Mak, while 18-year-old prodigy Leo Sauer, one of his Feyenoord team-mates, may also be given game time.

Jacob Whitehead

Photo:
Getty Images
Slovakia
Feyenoord
DEF
Group E

Artem Dovbyk

FWD

Ukraine
🇺🇦
AGE:
26
CAPS:
27
CLUB:
Girona

The very last touch of Artem Dovbyk’s debut campaign was the most surreal of them all.

Nearly all of his penalty kicks are arrowed to the goalkeeper’s left, but that doesn’t make them any more stoppable — his last of the season made it 7-0 to Girona on the night, sealed his hat-trick, and meant he became the first player in 16 years to win La Liga’s golden boot playing for a team other than Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

This isn’t just a purple patch, either. Dovbyk arrived off the back of a 24-goal season in his home country — shirt tucked in, right arm bandaged, buzzcut untouched — to hammer home 24 more in Spain. Flinging himself at crosses, slamming the ball into the bottom corners, or just applying the finishing touch, it quickly became clear that Girona had found a natural-born goalscorer to convert chances into points.

Forming a particularly potent partnership with Savio on the left, Dovbyk does his best work in the box and is particularly good when he can attack the space on the transition. Almost 94 per cent of his shots came from within the box last season — all but one of his goals — while no player in Europe’s ’big five’ leagues, not even Erling Haaland, took a greater proportion of their touches in the opposing penalty area. 

Despite his obvious raw power, Dovbyk is neat and tidy when he needs to be, bringing his talented team-mates into play around the penalty area. Away at Rayo Vallecano in November, there was an almost comical scene in which he backed up and up and up into the penalty area, standing with his foot on the ball, his back to goal, with defenders climbing on his back, before casually rolling a lay-off for Miguel Gutierrez to shoot. 

That was moments after he had a delicate backheel cleared off the line and minutes before he left Abdul Mumin sprawled on the ground with devastating movement and then blasted home the equaliser. He does the delicate things as well as the destructive.

Dovbyk will probably not get the same service this summer, even if his prolific club partner Viktor Tsygankov will start off to his right, but his ability to tear through the gears and crash the box means that opposing centre-backs will have their hands full.

Thom Harris

Photo:
Getty Images
Ukraine
Girona
FWD
Group E

Georgiy Sudakov

MID

Ukraine
🇺🇦
AGE:
21
CAPS:
16
CLUB:
Shakhtar

When Mykhailo Mudryk left Shakhtar Donetsk in January 2023, the Ukrainian side were looking for someone to step into his role and lead the team forward.

They didn’t have to look far as Georgiy Sudakov had already grown into one of the stars of the side. The midfielder is rated as one of the brightest young talents in Ukraine. 

Born in Brianka, Sudakov came onto the radar of Metalist Kharkiv while playing for his local club Sokil Brianka. He quickly became one of the most exciting prospects and his progress led to Shakhtar bringing him to the club in 2017.

The 21-year-old has finished his second season of regular first-team football. He is a versatile midfielder who can operate centrally or in a more advanced No 10 role. 

Sudakov is a technically gifted, press-resistant footballer and has a passing range and vision that make him a creative threat. That is backed up by his smarterscout profile — which gives players a series of ratings from zero to 99 — which highlights his effectiveness in possession to advance the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression, 78 out of 99).

He is comfortable varying his passing range but can also progress his team up the pitch himself (carry and dribble volume, 71 out of 99) and is not afraid to shoot if the opportunity presents itself (shot volume, 79 out of 99). 

Sudakov is not going to be the defensive lynchpin of a team’s midfield, but he can still be effective out of possession. He can read the game well and is effective at recovering possession (ball recoveries and interceptions; 79 out of 99) for his team. 

Shakhtar are preparing for his exit and an impressive tournament may push him further towards the exit. CEO Sergei Palkin said recently: “This summer window, he (Sudakov) has a big chance to move to some big clubs. We have had some contacts with big clubs and some are not negotiating with us directly but are getting a feel for the summer environment. He will definitely move to a top European club this summer.”

Sudakov has been linked with most of England’s top clubs. Napoli saw a £34million ($43.3m) bid rejected in January, with the Ukrainian side now setting an asking price of around £60million. 

That may increase depending on his tournament impact. It is his chance to shine on the world stage, two years on from hiding in makeshift bomb shelters with his family in the early stages of Russia’s invasion of his country. 

Andy Jones

Photo:
Getty Images
Ukraine
Shakhtar
MID
Group E