After a year’s delay, Euro 2020 will finally get under way when Italy take on Turkey in Rome on Friday, June 11.
Some of the world’s top talents will be on display in the month-long tournament, including the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane.
But away from the elite players, there are a clutch of others looking to overshadow those aforementioned names and leave their own mark on the pan-European competition.
Using Opta data, Stats Perform picks out eight under-the-radar stars – those that would not necessarily be considered as one of the favourites for individual honours before a ball is kicked – ahead of the tournament.
Federico Chiesa (Italy and Juventus)
Juventus may have endured one of their worst campaigns in recent memory last time out, but Chiesa can hold his head up high after impressing in his first year at the Allianz Stadium.
He was the man for the big occasions, scoring a couple of goals in January’s league victory over Milan and the winner in Juve’s Coppa Italia triumph against Atalanta.
The 23-year-old was a regular threat down both flanks – only Benevento forward Riccardo Improta (77, 29.87 per cent) had more open-play crosses in Serie A last season with a higher success rate than Chiesa (69, 27.54 per cent).
That ability to both create and score goals, plus his never-say-die spirit – best embodied by his three goals in two legs of the Champions League last-16 knockout defeat to Porto – means he is already a fan favourite in Turin.
“He tries to ignite the fans at home on the couch to let them feel the game like the players in the pitch,” former Juve striker Fabrizio Ravanelli told Stats Perform.
“He always sends a strong message to Juventus fans, the true DNA of Juventus of never giving up like it says in the motto: ‘Till the end’.”
Alexander Isak (Sweden and Real Sociedad)
Whisper it quietly, but Sweden may have a new superstar forward emerging to rival the legendary figure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Isak’s 17 strikes in 34 league appearances for Real Sociedad last season saw him become the Swede with the most goals in a single LaLiga campaign, surpassing Ibrahimovic’s 16 for Barcelona in 2009-10.
He may be tall and blessed with great technical ability, but Isak is a lot different to Ibrahimovic – ruled out of Euro 2020 with a knee injury – in terms of his playing style.
And with clubs such as Barcelona and Manchester City reportedly keeping a close eye on the 21-year-old, it may well be one day that other youngsters from the Scandinavian country are described as ‘the next Isak’.
Unai Simon (Spain and Athletic Bilbao)
Luis Enrique has not shied away from putting his faith in youth at the expense of those who have been there and done it, with veteran centre-back Sergio Ramos arguably the most high-profile omission from any squad at Euro 2020.
That is also true between the sticks, where 23-year-old Athletic Bilbao stopper Simon has usurped David de Gea to take control of the number-one spot.
Unlike Manchester United keeper De Gea and Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has not made the cut for Spain, Simon played regularly for his club side in 2020-21.
Indeed, the only Spanish goalkeepers to play more minutes last term in Europe’s top five leagues than Simon (3,330) were Alex Remiro and Fernando Pacheco of Real Sociedad and Deportivo Alaves respectively.
Simon saved 63.3 per cent of the shots he faced in LaLiga in 2020-21, compared to 65.22 per cent for De Gea in 26 Premier League games, and the six-cap keeper will need to be at his best if Spain are to banish their demons from the 2018 World Cup.
Guárdate esta creatividad para todo el campeonato y no pierdas de vista a tus futbolistas favoritos.
— Selección Española de Fútbol (@SeFutbol) June 1, 2021
Jamal Musiala (Germany and Bayern Munich)
Musiala switched international allegiance from England to Germany four months ago in the same week he became Bayern’s youngest Champions League goalscorer at the age of 17 years and 363 days.
Despite strong competition for places, Musiala featured regularly for the German champions last season with 35 appearances in all competitions, albeit the majority of those outings being as a substitute.
The former Chelsea product made his first two appearances for Germany in March’s World Cup qualifiers and only adds to a plethora of options available to Joachim Low in the final third.
Musiala may not be considered a regular just yet, but the stats suggest Low should perhaps consider using the youngster from the beginning of games.
Bayern’s win rate increased from 62.5 per cent without Musiala in their side in the Bundesliga last term to 73.1 per cent with him, while their average goals for climbed from 2.5 to 3.0, and their passing accuracy in the final third went from 72.4 to 74.1.
Not so much a lucky omen, but a player who is clearly already good enough to make a telling impact on even the biggest sides.
Marcus Thuram (France and Borussia Monchengladbach)
No nation boasts a collection of forwards quite like France, who can call upon Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Wissam Ben Yedder, Thomas Lemar, Kingsley Coman, Olivier Giroud and the returning Karim Benzema.
What chance does Borussia Monchengladbach forward Thuram have, then, of ousting any of those players from the side?
While the 23-year-old may not be used as a regular starter, he will provide an intriguing option for spoiled-for-choice head coach Didier Deschamps to choose from off the bench for group games against Germany, Portugal and Hungary.
Thuram, the son of World Cup winner Lilian, certainly knows how to make the most of his minutes on the field and has the ability to score via a range of different ways.
All eight of his Bundesliga goals last term were scored inside the box, but they were shared between his right foot (three), left foot (two), head (two) and other means (one).
In fact, he was one of just nine forwards to start 20 games or fewer in Europe’s top five leagues last season and still score more than once with his right foot.
Aleksandr Golovin (Russia and Monaco)
Monaco midfielder Golovin was plagued by injuries and illness in 2020-21 but still played a starring role in Monaco’s unlikely Ligue 1 title bid that went down to the final game.
The 25-year-old found the net five times and set up nine more in 21 appearances, three of those goals coming in one game against Nimes in early February.
That made Golovin the first Russian to score a hat-trick in Europe’s top five leagues since ex-Fulham striker Pavel Pogrebnyak in 2012.
He is undoubtedly the key creative talent in the Russia squad and, in a group that contains a defensively-strong Denmark and Belgium, plus Finland, it will likely be the Monaco man that holds the key to his side’s hopes of progression.
His effectiveness with set-piece deliveries could be particularly vital.
9 – Aleksandr Golovin in 2020/21 Ligue 1:
– 21 games played (1072 minutes)
– 5 goals (2.95 xG), 27 shots, 13 shots on target
– 9 assists (4.21 xA), 35 chances created, 132 passes into the box
– 70/160 duels won
– 18/34 dribbles completed
– 16/28 tackles won
— OptaIvan (@OptaIvan) May 24, 2021
Yusuf Yazici (Turkey and Lille)
Lille’s incredible Ligue 1 triumph was down to a collective effort, but a few players certainly stood out for the shock title winners.
Look no further than breakthrough star Yazici, whose return of a goal every 153.71 minutes was the fourth best of any midfielder with at least five goals in Europe’s top five leagues in 2020-21, trailing just Joe Willock, Lars Stindl and Musiala.
The 24-year-old scored seven league goals in total and netted the same amount in the Europa League, where Lille made it to the knockout stages before being eliminated by Ajax.
That includes a couple of three-goal hauls in the group stage as he became the first player to score an away hat-trick against Milan in all competitions since Rivaldo in October 2000 for Barcelona.
With experience of scoring in big matches and winning silverware with rank outsiders, Yazici will now be looking to guide many people’s dark horses Turkey deep into Euro 2020.
Ryan Gravenberch (Netherlands and Ajax)
A member of the Netherlands’ Under-17s European Championship-winning squad in 2018, Gravenberch has gone from strength to strength in the three years since and is now a regular in Ajax’s central midfield.
Gravenberch also has two Eredivisie titles and two Dutch Cups to his name to go with that age-grade continental triumph, all before he even turned 19 last month.
The teenage talent, another product of Ajax’s fabled academy, made his senior international debut earlier this year and has a chance of starting – or at least playing a prominent part in – the Oranje’s quest for a second European Championship crown.
If nothing else, Gravenberch will certainly bring a level of calmness to the Dutch midfield.
He had a pass accuracy rate of 87.21 per cent in the Eredivisie last season – the only midfielders younger in Europe’s top five leagues to play 20 or more times with a better return were Pedri (87.66) and Lucas Gourna-Douath (87.29).
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