Belgium: Jason Denayer (Manchester City, England)
The secret has been out for some time on Belgium’s embarrassment of riches in terms of talented footballers, but a few injuries have highlighted that its dispersal among the field is something you just can’t control. Marc Wilmots may have selected four similarly built strikers for the tournament, yet has been scrambling for solutions on defence after his preferred central duo of Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts were lost to injury. He stubbornly pushed back against uniting Tottenham’s pair of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Verthongen, who usually cover the flanks for the national team, but relented recently and the line that will protect keeper Thibault Courtois seems finally stabilised, featuring on the right side the talented Jason Denayer.
Having been compared to Kompany for a few years due to a variety of reasons (same club, position, skill and origin), the 20-year-old differs from the Man City skipper for his decision to leave Anderlecht in 2008 in order to join the newly founded Académie Jean-Marc Guillou, a private institution away from normal football competition where education and technical refinement are the only focus of a gruelling daily regime. Denayer would leave the school at age 18 and impressed Manchester City during an elongated trial, proving to be a prospect full of potential but in need of seasoning in the professional game. The powerful defender was therefore loaned to Celtic Glasgow in 2014-15 and his agility, quickness and poise with the ball made such an impact that he was voted the League’s young player of the year.
Last season’s spell at Galatasaray wasn’t as successful, but he still made 28 appearances, mostly as a right back, earning important Champions League and Europa League experience. A defender that reads the game well and is blessed with strength and pace in spades, Denayer has every tool necessary to become a mainstay and should thrive on Pepe Guardiola’s hands. However, before joining the English side, look for him as one of the Euro 2016 emerging talents.
Italy: Federico Bernardeschi (ACF Fiorentina)
Looking at the Squadra Azzurra elected by Antonio Conte, one can’t help to notice the distinct lack of offensive flair, even for an Italian side. Already robbed of Marco Verrati and Claudio Marchisio due to injury, the former Juventus manager went one step forward by disregarding the MLS duo Andrea Pirlo/Sebastian Giovinco, and football fans wept. However, Italy’s games aren’t a lost cause yet. Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne is capable of breaking a game open and Conte was kind enough to bring along an exciting talent from the birthplace of the Renaissance.
A native of Carrara, Federico Bernardeschi climbed the Viola’s ranks since joining the club as a 9-year-old and was eventually farmed out in 2013-14, playing his first professional games for Serie B’s Crotone. In 38 games, the right winger scored 12 times, helping the club reach the playoff for promotion and justifying the return home, but the following season was cut short by a fractured ankle, with Bernardeschi appearing in just 10 games. Despite that, last summer he was handed the #10 shirt, which was worn by two of his idols, Roberto Baggio and Rui Costa, and his game simply took off. Originally a playmaker or a winger, with new manager Paulo Sousa setting up the squad on a fluid system that seamlessly transformed between a 3-4-1-2 or a 4-4-1-1, the 21-year-old was deployed in multiple positions (left back, left wing-back, right wing-back, right winger and number 10) and always responded positively, displaying his advanced understanding of the game and versatility.
Equipped with a brilliant left foot, Bernardeschi’s creative mind prospers when drifting inside from the right side, since he can progress with the ball, link up with teammates or hit the goal, but he’s also extremely reliable holding the flank, displaying defensive awareness and tactical maturity unusual for someone of his age. Excellent delivering crosses and set pieces, the Fiorentina man can also attack off the dribble with speed, so Conte would be wise to arrange a spot for him on his preferred line-up. It shouldn’t be too difficult since he can fit in so many places on Italy’s 3-5-2/3-4-3.
Republic Ireland: Robbie Brady (Norwich City, England)
The Irish national team isn’t exactly the place to behold if you’re looking for surprises during major competitions, as you know they’ll always field an organized, competitive group that will fight for every match and more times than not end up defeated by a more talented opponent. Their Euro 2016 roster is the oldest in the competition and the major names are already pushing (Shane Long) or way past the thirty (Robbie Keane, Jonathan Walters, Shay Given, John O’Shea), but there’s younger blood arriving to carry the mantle forward. One of the most interesting is Norwich’s diligent left -back Robbie Brady.
Spotted by Manchester United at Dublin junior club St Kevin’s Boys in 2008, Brady arrived in England as a central midfielder, but his ability to push the pace of the game and exceptional left foot soon determined a migration to the edges of the pitch. It was already as a wide man that he was loaned to Hull City in 2011 and later signed to a permanent deal, having a hand in 35 goals for the club until they were relegated at the end of 2014-15. By this time, Brady had already gathered a few reps as a defender and Norwich liked what they saw, securing his services for a fee of £7M.
On the Canaries, the 24-year-old split the season between the two positions and much of the same has occurred recently for Ireland, as his starting spot is defined by the opponent. If they’re looking for goals, Brady starts at the back and has green light to sprint down the corridor, with the team having to live up with the lapses in coverage he’s still tightening up. Meanwhile, a more balanced strategy calls for his inclusion on the midfield, where his skill can help craft possession time. The most important thing is being capable of unleashing pinpoint deliveries to the box and provide his usually dynamic play, which is fuelled by a great engine. Additionally, Brady is the dominant dead-ball taker; one of the areas Ireland is most likely to hurt their opponents on.
At the competition, much of what the Republic of Ireland will do offensively should commence with their pair of offensive-minded fullbacks. We’ll see if Robbie Brady’s performances get him the level of respect right-back Seamus Coleman (Everton) has already earned at the Premier League level.
Sweden: Victor Lindelöf (SL Benfica, Portugal)
Everything in Sweden hovers around Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their only World-Class player since Henrik Larsson and Fredrik Ljungberg abandoned, but that may be close to an end. Not only because the egotistical striker is 34 years old, but also due to the emergence of a new generation, the crop that last summer conquered the U-21 European Championships in Prague. Six players from that team are part of the group in France and centre back Victor Lindelöf seems the closest to step into the top-echelon of European football.
Born in Västerås, the centre back represented his local team until Portuguese giants Benfica showed interest in 2012, flying to Lisbon to represent the club’s B team. During three years (96 games), he sharpened his skills on Portugal’s second division and patiently waited for his chance, bouncing around between the centre and right side of the defence as well as functioning as a holding midfielder. Still regarded as a 2nd-tier player, he was a late injury fill-in on Sweden’s Championship team in 2015, yet he snatched the right back position and ended up elected to the Team of the Tournament.
After that, Lindelöf was finally promoted to Benfica’s first-team and his breakout would materialize a few months later, following the team captain’s injury. The Swede assumed a role on the defensive scheme’s heart and his qualities helped prompt the squad on a surging 2nd half of the season, which culminated on the Portuguese title and a Champions League quarter-final berth. It was exactly during Benfica’s tie with Bayern Munich that Europe got to appreciate his multiple qualities: he was aggressive anticipating the play, effective clearing the ball, comfortable starting the build up with crisp passing and cool under heavy pressure.
The “Ice Man”, as nicknamed by Benfica fans, allowed his team to play with a high backline due to his quickness and ability to close down romping forwards, and Sweden would be wise to use him there too, since agility isn’t something you usually associate with their sturdy defence. Victor Lindelöf may have only a trio of international caps to his name by now, but if he keeps improving at this rate, the 21-year-old may well rewrite Sweden’s history at the position.
Portugal: João Mário (Sporting CP)
Presented with a candy-like group stage draw that should help the team gel while giving a head-start to Cristiano Ronaldo’s challenge for the Golden Boot award, Portugal’s systematic showcase of prime talent ready to be moved for Europe’s best leagues should shine since day one. The 18-year-old Renato Sanches is already taken, and reports indicate left back Raphael Guerreiro is close to join him in the Bundesliga, but there’s more making headlines around Europe, with midfielders André Gomes and João Mário lined up for millionaire transfers this summer. Since the former is already plying his trade at La Liga, we’ll focus on Sporting’s diamond.
The 23-year-old has been at the Lisbon side since 2004 and rose through the ranks of their academy until his debut with the first team in 2011. However, he only mustered one appearance over the next 2 seasons, being referred to the reserve squad, and was loaned to Vitória Setúbal in the second half of 2013-14, where regular playing time made wonders for his development. The midfielder’s stellar performances led to a return home and since then his cerebral game has been lighting up the pitch of the Alvalade Stadium. An extremely poised midfielder that recently started being used out wide to stretch the play, João Mario’s game is based on a sublime first touch and intelligent decision making, which always pushes the team closer to the goal. He’s brilliant finding spaces inside enemy lines to get open and offer a passing option, while his exquisite turns in tight break pressure lines. Then, his immaculate technique and balance takes over as he fends off opponents in spite of middling running speed.
Fernando Santos, the Portuguese manager, has given every indication that he´s going to deploy João Mario as the false right winger on his four-man central unit, and he’s expected to prove crucial holding the ball and connecting with the two men roaming up front. After the tournament, England probably beckons, with the precise destination still unknown.
Austria: Martin Hinteregger (Red Bull Salzburg)
Austria’s renaissance on Europe’s football landscape has seen most of their best players construct solid careers in the continent’s top leagues, and consequently names like Aleksandar Dragovic, Christian Fuchs, Marko Arnautovic and Martin Harnik have achieved some recognition, even if they obviously pale in comparison with David Alaba, one of most complete players in the Planet today. Furthermore, Austrian players are becoming a hot property and that is especially evident on their central defence’s depth chart, with the four elements selected accomplished enough to feature for a number of other national teams that qualified for the tournament.
Despite the fact that Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham Hotspurs) and Sebastian Prödl (Watford) have Premier League experience, Dragovic’s customary partner is the 23-year-old Martin Hinteregger and there’s a reason for that. Equally tall and imposing, the Red Bull Salzburg property adds an element of composure on the ball the others lack, opting regularly to surge forward or serve an on-rushing player with a well-timed long pass. Additionally, he also boasts a decent scoring record, having tallied for 12 times on 201 games for Red Bull Salzburg, with his qualities not restricted to pouncing on headers in response to set pieces, but also to chances he creates with his powerful shot when asked to take risks.
A mobile defender that reads the game well and times his defensive actions effectively, Hinteregger was on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach during the second half of 2015-16 but the German team opted to not exercise the buy-in option. A good performance in France may make them regret the decision before long.
Iceland: Arnór Ingvi Traustason (IFK Norrköping, Sweden)
A few months ago I wrote about Iceland and since then little has changed regarding the major options at the disposal of the pair Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson. The expected starting line-up is exactly the same, and many of the players I highlighted made the trip to France, nonetheless for the past few months Iceland has rejuvenated its roster a bit, bringing in additional depth and youth to the group. On the defensive sector were selected four elements aged 24 or under, yet my pick goes to a player that evolves further up the pitch, left winger Arnór Ingvi Traustason.
The 23-year-old started his career for his hometown club, Keflavík ÍF, and less than 30 appearances were enough to spark the interest of Norwegian side Sandnes Ulf, where he spent four months on loan in 2012 without much success. However, a return to Iceland ignited his game and at the beginning of 2014 Traustason left the island again, this time for an opportunity in Sweden. Norrköping was the destination and the skilled winger got moved around the pitch before settling on the left side of the midfield, where he became instrumental on the team that conquered the Swedish crown after 26 years. Traustason contributed with 7 goals and a league-leading 11 assists to the title, impressing onlookers due to his pace and knack for exploring the soft zone behind the strikers, where he could blast the net or deliver the final pass. With a fine right foot, he also caused troubles firing weighted balls at the box, and eventually the national team’s brass was convinced, earning his first cap in late November and proceeding to collect a noteworthy total of 3 goals in 7 appearances.
Such impact is rare and difficult to ignore for a country of Iceland’s magnitude, and therefore Traustason netted a spot on the final list for the Euro 2016, where he’ll arrive shortly after completing a transfer to Austrian outfit Rapid Viena. Expect the versatile, creative winger to make waves in France as a substitute.
Hungary: Ádám Nagy (Ferencváros Budapest)
Hungary’s return to a major competition for the first time in 30 years will be a festive time for the country and an important landmark on the career of some of the veterans that have toiled with the squad. In particular for Captain Zoltán Gera (37-years-old) and iconic goalkeeper Gábor Király (40), the competition symbolizes the end of an international career, and both reflect the change of the guard to a generation that expects to enjoy more opportunities to display his talents. It may not be readily evident based on their roster at the Euro 2016 (average age of 28), but Hungary is starting to brim with young footballers and the most exciting is defensive midfielder Ádám Nagy.
The 20-year-old that grew up playing futsal didn’t exactly follow the common football upbringing, bolting the country at age 16 to enrol at an academy in La Manga (Spain), but fortunately two years later Ferencváros was alert and secured his return home. In the meantime, Hungary also took notice and Bernd Stork, the current national team manager, made him an integral part of the squad that travelled to New Zealand for the 2015 U-20 World Cup, a tournament that established his rapid upward trend. In a matter of weeks, Nagy turned into a regular for the would-be Hungarian Champions and debuted for the main national team, with scouts flocking to see what made the defensive pivot such a special talent, particularly after a magnificent performance on the return leg of the Euro 2016 playoffs.
It’s now been just twelve months since that youth World Cup, and no one disputes that he can evolve into the beating heart for a top European team in a short time. Despite his slight frame, Nagy already enchants for his ability to distribute the ball from deep with both feet and displays advanced tactical awareness. He reads the play before anyone else, and thus is able to efficiently cover ground and pile up interceptions, which mines the opponents’ offensive transitions and jolts counter-attacks. All these are characteristics that Hungary may require while facing stronger teams implementing a high pressing game.