Yes, we know is almost summertime, but this doesn’t mean we have to give up on watching football all day long, right? Luckily, we don’t have to, as there are plenty of tournaments to watch these days. So, after presenting to you the most interesting players to watch at the U-20 FIFA World Cup – won by Ukraine, btw – and showing you the best teams and probable outcomes of the FIFA Women’s World Cup stage group, here you have another insight into an international tournament: the 2019 U-21 UEFA European Championship. In fact, our friends at L’Ultimo Uomo are presenting you some of the best and most promising talents that will play in Italy in the upcoming weeks.

Robert Skov, Denmark
by Marco D’Ottavi

Even if Robert Skov is part of the oldest class at this European Championship – the class of ’96 – he’s relatively new at the highest levels of football. Until last year, he used to play at Silkeborg, a small team in the Superligaen (that has now been relegated) before being bought by Copenhagen, where he literally exploded with 32 goals in 48 games, becoming the Superligaen top goal scorer with 29 goals. Last February, the club’s tv channel dedicated him a brief service in which he can be seen leaving his two-room apartment and taking the 9A bus to go to training. With his backpack and his wool beanie, he looks like any random guy speaking to the camera. He pays his ticket and calls the stop before getting off. Copenhagen training centre looks very welcoming, a perfect place to grow in.

Skov is an atypical right winger, very strong physically, but lacking a very good technique or impressive dribbling. He’s fast, especially in the long run, but he’s not unstoppable. At a first look, he may seem more a defensive player than an offensive one, but it actually is the other way around. Not only Skov has been the top goal scorer in the league but also the player with the most completed dribbles – that he makes thanks to an impressive physique – and the most shots on goal. He was the second-best for assists and chances created, even without being a superb passer.

His secret is an excellent left foot, that makes him a continuous offensive threat. Skov can shoot the ball in a tense and violent way, turning his leg in some sort of a whip. He always uses the internal side of the foot to shoot, hitting the ball in the lower side to make the trajectory even more unpredictable. This allows him to be lethal when he manages to attack the centre and find the right time to coordinate, but also during free-kicks, a situation that let him to score 7 goals and ending the season with 10 assists.

An example of how Skov’s goals can be.

Skov is not a particularly creative player. The scoring occasions he creates are more the result of his physical superiority in a low-level league – and of his left foot – rather than a remarkable technical sensibility. At Copenhagen, he plays as a right wing in a 4-4-2, but he loves to cut to the centre in order to play the ball with the left foot and be closer to the goal, an area where he’s a constant threat. He’s not demanded with defensive tasks, but his physique and speed allow him to have a discreet defensive phase.

Skov has to improve several aspects of his game and he can only do that by leaving the Danish league as soon as possible, trying to play in more challenging contexts, where he could change his role to trequartista or inside forward, positions where his physique and ability to carry the ball can have a more direct impact on the game than on the wing, where he looks a little bit too muddled to play in the best championships.

With U-21 Denmark NT he’s regularly played as a right winger in a 4-3-3. After performing brilliantly in last year’s Euro qualifications (7 goals in 10 games and the team’s best goal scorer), Skov started to play in the first national team and this year he hasn’t played a game with the U-21 yet. Curiously, his place has been taken by Andreas Skov Olsen, 19-years old, another very promising right winger. The coach Niels Frederiksen will have to choose whether to bench the younger Skov or change the tactical structure. He won’t likely drop his best player, that will have a chance to show himself and his amazing left foot on a bigger stage.

 

Aaron Wan-Bissaka, England
by Daniele Manusia

If you know nothing about Aaron Wan-Bissaka, there are basically two things you need to know about Aaron Wan-Bissaka. First of all, during his first years in football, he was an offensive winger, inspired by Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry. He has then become a full-back when he already played for Crystal Palace U-23 team, just before debuting in the first team. The second one is that, paradoxically, he’s now one of the best defensive full-backs and one of the most complicated to beat in the 1v1 in the Premier League. He’s the best one for successful tackles per 90/min (3.7) and anticipations (2.4), even if nobody ever taught him to defend: “When I check my stats, I’m the first one impressed”, he says.

In these years, some coincidences played their role in the story and Aaron did a good job in taking the chances he got. His former managers were impressed when, playing him as a full-back to cover a missing teammate during training, they noticed that not even Wilfred Zaha managed to drop him in the 1v1. The strike himself was impressed by him: “How can a winger turn to a full-back like this? I mean, he defends so well. I think it’s his natural position”.

After debuting in the Premier League in February 2018 against Tottenham, always replacing a missing teammate (Joel Ward), he played the entire second part of that season. In the last one (2018/19), Wan-Bissaka played 90 minutes in every game but four: he missed one for a red card he got in the second half, then one serving the one-game ban, and another two for an injury. That means that, at 22, Wan-Bissaka already have one and a half season played in the most challenging league in the world, against the quickest and most skilled wingers (just mentioning some he defended against Erisken, Alexis Sanchez, Sadio Mané, Son, Hazard and Willian).

He has been voted as the best player of the season for Crystal Palace and it looks like Manchester United has already made an offer (rejected) for him, so he won’t use the U-21 European Championship as a showcase but more like another chance to improve his game and maybe collect some personal satisfaction.

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An example of his defensive ability: being surprised by Son’s skill, he starts a meter behind his opponent, but he manages to catch up the disadvantage with a perfect tackle and his long legs.

Wan-Bissaka is nicknamed “the Spider” for his long legs, which he manages to resolve some situations that already look compromised with. As said, tackling is his speciality, not only for his long legs but also for his attention, always looking at the ball, instead of the legs or the chest of his opponents (just like more expert defenders do). Maybe for his past as an offensive player, he’s great at reading the 1v1 duels: he closes the centre of the pitch with his body, leaving space on the wing, then accelerating (he’s very quick, even if he’s 1.80m tall) and then tackling with the perfect timing. Wan-Bissaka doesn’t have the stiffness of classic defenders; he compensates his instinctive spontaneity as forward with his reflexes and concentration.

But at Crystal Palace, a team that often defends with a low line then attacking in transition, he hadn’t the chance to show his offensive skills. Maybe, in this U-21 European Championship, he will manage to take some responsibility in the last third of the pitch (with crosses and key passes). Surely, he doesn’t lack creativity, that he shows with his dribbles (2.6 attempted per 90/min, 1.8 successful: no full-back is better than him in this). With the ball at his feet, he’s simply unpredictable, with some street football skills that allow him to keep control of the ball even in the narrowest spaces, with the quickness of thinking and moving that are second to none.

Of course, Wan-Bissaka isn’t a mature player just yet. Those who will invest in him will bet on his potential. And his story is relevant as well: Wan-Bissaka turned into a full-back, now he must come back being more of a winger. When he started playing defence he used to think: “This isn’t me”. But he kept training without a complaint, with determination. To the point that the first time his manager Roy Hodgson saw him losing his first ball, he felt relieved: “I thought he was turning into a robot”.

 

Xaver Schlager, Austria
by Emanuele Atturo

Xaver Schlager has been signed by RB Salzburg at just 12 when he used to play for Sankt Valentin, the team of a small city of 9 thousand people in Lower Austria. We can see him in this picture shot with the U-12 team, on the top left side, with the same frowning face, armband and squat body he still has today.

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Schlager was one of the most important players in RB Salzburg recent outbursts, one of the best examples of the Austrian club’s ability to raise young talents ready for professional football. He was in the RB Salzburg midfield that surprisingly won the Youth League in 2017. In that team, led by Marco Rose, there also were other talents that are shining in these years, like Amadou Haidara and Hannes Wolf, that will play with him at the U-21 European Championship.

In 2016, at 19, Schlager debuted in the first team and, since that day, he has been trying every position of RB Salzburg 4-3-1-2 rhomboid midfield. He started playing as a trequartista, and then he was moved in front of the defence and as inside forward, the most natural role that he’s still playing frequently. Those days, RB Salzburg manager described him like this: “He has fantastic ball control and he’s a good finisher”.

He’s a midfielder with a low barycentre, with powerful legs that characterize his game. He’s explosive and very efficient in every situation without the ball, especially when he can defend ahead – following the tactical pattern of the team – and recover the ball by pressing the opponents. As many other young players raised by RB Salzburg, he loves playing at a high pace and intensity. And Schlager is also very good at not losing control and not getting agitated. His artificial and not-so-elegant moves may make him look like a less technical player, but he actually has good first control and an excellent ability to resist the pressing thanks to the strong legs. In this, he’s penalized by a poor usage of the right foot; especially when he has to protect the ball, he prefers to use the body and touch the ball with the left one.

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An example of Schlager’s quick mind and vision. He’s in an unusual position, forward, and he can turn and find the pass for the striker in a breath.

He plays with two-touches almost all the time, fluidifying the team’s possession. If he plays as right inside forward with the inverted foot, he becomes efficient when he can try long passes to the other wing to move the toughest defences of the league. In Europa League, where RB Salzburg shined for so many years, he’s been very good at participating at the transition with his passing game. He has a sensitive left foot and he makes good passes, both short and long ones. He also has a good vision of the game; which he always finds he teammates behind the opponents’ lines with.

Schlager, then, is a technical player, with a good understanding of the game, good timing, and remarkable readings for a 22-years old player. A regista who makes his abilities available for a team that loves running and playing vertically. His versatility – technically and tactically speaking – is the very reason that should make his adaptation to the National team immediate.

We’re talking about an expert player, that actually has only 6 games with the U-21 team, then switching immediately to the first team (which he has 8 games and 1 goal with). In the small renaissance of Austrian football, in which RB Salzburg played a crucial role, Schlager is one of the most unique and interesting profiles to follow.

 

Ionut Radu, Romania
by Dario Saltari

Ionut Radu is one of those players with such an impressive resume that makes you wonder how can he still be a U-21 goalkeeper. He entered Inter Milan academies six years ago – after arriving in Italy thanks to Pergolettese – and he already played a season in Serie B, with Avellino, and another one in Serie A, with Genoa, playing almost every match. That’s a huge experience level for a 22-years-old goalkeeper, that highlighted and concretized his obvious talent. At the end of 2018, for example, Radu already won the Romanian goalkeeper of the year.

It was this last season, though, the one in which Radu attracted the most attention, with a series of astonishing saves in the last part of the season that nobody expected in such a young goalkeeper. The Romanian goalie showed his reflexes and an uncommon ability to hit the ground quickly, often keeping his team alive in the game. A team that grasped to him in order to get those points that allowed it to avoid relegation at the end of the season. He also has a very peculiar interpretation of the position, with wide usage of his feet to block shots, with a style that seems to prefer immediate efficacy to the execution of the studied gesture.

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Believe it or not, this shot didn’t turn into a goal thanks to a save from Radu.

However, Radu is not only an instinctive talent and he proved he has already started to work to improve his technique. First of all, he has a great sense of the position and, in fact, sometimes he’s so confident of blocking the ball that he ends up leaving it in dangerous areas of the box. His excessive confidence is also highlighted by the slowness with which he recovers the position the rare times he’s caught off guard; as if he shocked himself with his own mistakes.

Radu is quite confident with the ball at his feet as well, and he has a superb technical sensitivity that – up to now – we only had the chance to see in his long balls, as neither Avellino or Genoa allowed him to participate at the first build-up of the play. The simplicity with which he kicks the ball seems to allow him to play in teams with a more modern style, that would force him to work hard on what looks like his main flaw right now: timing on the exits. Radu’s most evident mistakes this season, those that have reminded us of his age, brought him to be anticipated in the box on high balls by forwards, or getting stuck halfway between the line and the opponent running towards him, leaving the goals dangerously open.

In this regard, it will be interesting to see him with U-21 Romanian NT, in which he will be one of the stars on the team, one of those players with the highest expectations. Up to now, Radu always had the element of surprise on his side and all his mistakes were forgiven because of his young age and inexperience. But things are going to change quickly and this summer – whether he will stay at Genoa or change club – his will play in a high-level team that will bet strongly on him as a regular goalkeeper. For a solitary position like his one, in which the psychological pressure can make the difference between a great save and a silly mistake, this makes all the difference in the world.

 

Mikel Oyarzabal, Spain
by Daniele V. Morrone

Mikel Oyarzabal, the rising star of Spain U-21 national team is a Basque, born and raised in the small city of Eibar. At 14, he moved to the close and more well-known academy of Real Sociedad. At 18, he debuted in the first team and, four years from that day, he already played more than 150 games with Real Sociedad, signing a contract with a €75M release clause (that seems too low for him).

This work rate is highlighted by the commitment he proves in the defensive phase, how he runs back trying to win the ball back from the opponents and the continuity he shows for all the 90 minutes. He really seems to have a never-ending battery: in three years with the first team, he only missed 6 LaLiga games. But his true talent is the offensive one. Oyarzabal is a player that may look less elegant, he has a not-so-smooth run and big feet for his thin body. But he’s a smart player, with great sensitivity in his left foot, and he’s very creative. Most of all, Oyarzabal seems to perform at his best when the context around him is more challenging: if he plays with players as smart as him, he performs even better.

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He allows his teammate to complete his move by receiving the ball and waiting before closing the one-two, drawing the attention of his opponents. The pass is accurate and leads to an assist.

Oyarzabal is a mature player that, even not being super-fast, knows how to use the change of rhythms and pauses when he has the ball. That’s why he’s so efficient both when carrying the ball and playing in the narrow spaces. And he also has a technical dribble, finishing the season with 59.2% of completed dribbles, attempting 4.13 per 90/mins.

Oyarzabal has a surprising variety of solutions when playing with the goal at his back, with a wide range of fakes and plays to engage his teammates. A skill that would also allow him to be played as a striker. From his idol David Silva (different to him for the physical structure or the moves on the pitch) he has taken the ability to be useful in several areas of the pitch, thanks to the ball protection and the timing for the runs and cuts in the box.

No U-24 player has scored as many goals in LaLiga as Oyarzabal, who did it without even playing as a centre-forward. He says that his favourite position is left winger or trequartista but during the season he was also played with the inverted foot: in the 37 LaLiga games he played, 19 were on the left wing, 13 on the right and 4 as a trequartista. He finished the season with 13 goals and 4 assists. A remarkable number if we consider the struggles that Real Sociedad had in building up the plays, that forced him to touch the ball only 2.3 times ever 90 minutes.

Oyarzabal is very good at suggesting the passes to his teammates by attacking the space, also because his movements without the ball already are top-level. He often scores with first-touch shots, because that’s the only thing he needs to find himself in front of the goal. In fact, 7 of his 13 LaLiga goals came directly with a first-touch shot (2 of them were headers).

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With the striker engaged, he cuts into the box with perfect timing between the two CBs and he only has to shot to score.

The shot accuracy was one of the main flaws during the first years of his career (some say because of a too wide foot for his 181cm of height), but that sensitivity he only seemed to use to protect the ball is now visible when he shoots as well. It’s something he’s been working on in the last two seasons, accomplishing an excellent 42.9% of shots on goal with 1.71 shots per 90/min in the last LaLiga season.

Think about this: his 13 goals came from only 23 total shots to the goal. At his debut with the first national team, in the last friendly against Sweden, he only needed a shot to score a beauty from outside the box.

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