PLAYERS TO WATCH AT uefa EURO 2020
MANUEL LOCATELLI JÉRÉMY DOKU OWEN WIJNDAL ALEX KRÁL Kacper Kozłowski
Another European Championship is upon us. It might be a year late, perhaps the quality of it will fall short of what many expect after a year of relentless pandemicball, but we care not one jot. A summer of football has arrived.
deep-lying midfielder, 1998, us sassuolo & italy
Manuel Locatelli has been developing quietly at Sassuolo for a few years now. But after a career-best season, a move to a big European club seems imminent. Euro 2020 presents an opportunity for the Italian to stake his claim as one of Europe’s premier midfielders.
While he normally plays as the deepest midfielder at club level, Locatelli will likely be tasked playing in a slightly more advanced role for Italy. But while his positioning on the left of a midfield three will be a little unusual, his role will remain similar; to spark attacks with his dynamic passing range. When defences have time to set themselves in a low block, Locatelli is equally able to play shorter passes targeting central zones, where Lorenzo Insigne will look to drift inside and receive possession.
He will be a great foil in midfield for the more mobile and attacking Nicolo Barella, and the more risk averse Jorginho. And with players such as a Insigne, Domenico Berardi and Federico Chiesa to target out wide, Locatelli’s willingness to play long range passes and stretch the play should open up space for Italy’s wide men to exploit.
Alongside his passing range, his ability to receive the ball and wrong-foot opponents pressuring him is a key asset, and should be particularly useful in helping to relieve pressure on the Azzurri in situations when they are defending leads.
winger, 2002, stade rennais & Belgium
The 2020/21 season was one of healthy progress, if not end product, for Jérémy Doku. An exciting start to his campaign with Anderlecht preceded a big move to Champions League qualifiers Stade Rennais, who were willing to let star man Raphinha leave in order to bring the prospect to the club.
Slotting into the vacated right side of the Les Rouge et Noir attack, the electric winger proved a more than capable replacement for Raphinha in terms of ball-carrying and dribbling, as he relied on his low centre of gravity, stocky build and explosive acceleration to dart between, weave around and burst past opposition defenders in order to create chances from wide areas.
Nevertheless, as of yet the Belgian starlet has struggled to turn the danger he offers one-on-one into much in the way of goal threat, having only chipped in with six goal contributions in 37 appearances for Rennes this past season. There are budding signs that this is being addressed though, with half of those contributions arriving in his last seven club games.
Not to mention a far more respectable record of two goals and two assists in eight appearances for Belgium since Doku made his bow for the national team back in September. While he almost certainly won’t feature from the start against Russia on Saturday – with the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens ahead of him for the two attacking spots behind Romelu Lukaku – head coach Roberto Martínez may well see Doku as one of his most dynamic options off the bench, including from either wing-back position should Belgium be chasing a game.
Despite the supreme talent it boasts, the Belgium squad is the oldest at the competition and looks a tad jaded in comparison to some of the tournament’s other frontrunners. In its youngest member, The Red Devils possess a live wire potentially on the cusp of discovering himself as a difference maker. There are a number of factors lining up for Doku to have a good Euros, if given the chance.
Left-back, 1999, AZ Alkmaar & Netherlands
Owen Wijndal has the all the necessary ingredients to be a breakout player at this tournament. Many know of him as part of AZ Alkmaar’s highly-regarded core of home-grown players that boasts Myron Boadu, Calvin Stengs as well as Teun Koopmeiners, but comparatively few will have watched him.
He has a skillset that catches the eye and a status in Frank de Boer’s Netherlands side that makes that more likely. The 21-year-old has played in each of last eight Dutch games – starting all but one – since making his senior international debut last October. That run should continue against Ukraine on Sunday, unless De Boer tries to get Daley Blind back into the team.
Wijndal is a technically proficient and tactically flexible wing-back. His overall technique is good, with strong basic skills that enable him to operate at a fluent tempo, and he makes valuable contributions in every phase of possession play – retention, progression both as a passer and receiver, and chance creation.
He provides width and box-to-box running down the left. Wijndal’s angled overlapping movements will be especially important to this Dutch team, who have reverted to a 3-5-2 shape in the pre-tournament warm-up games. His timing is often good, and once he receives the ball on the outside, he has the composure and quality to pick out attackers in the box with crisp crosses that keep low. If he strikes up a good relationship with Memphis Depay and Frenkie de Jong down that side, one predicated on fluidity of positioning, it has the can be a potent channel of attack for the Dutch.
There may not be feverish excitement around Wijndal like with others, but there is definitely intrigue. This tournament is a great opportunity for him to pump his reputation ahead of a big move, which may come this summer. Donyell Malen is similar.
Defensive midfield, 1998, Spartak Moscow & Czech Republic
Two successful seasons at Spartak Moscow has Alex Kral angling for a move. Recent links to West Ham have emerged, with the club developing a strong Czech core with recent acquisitions of two of Kral’s former team-mates at Slavia Prague, Vladimír Coufal and Tomáš Souček. And so Euro 2020 presents as a perfect opportunity for the defensive midfielder to place himself in the shop window.
Kral is primarily a defensive midfield anchor. His game is not overly expansive, although he is afforded more freedom playing at international level with Souček partnering him in the Czech midfield.
The 23-year-old is a big lad, too. Standing at around 6’1”, with a mop of hair that probably adds an extra inch to that, Kral is an imposing presence and has the mobility to defend spaces effectively and close down players instinctively. Alongside Souček, Kral’s ability to shield the defence will be crucial to the Czech Republic’s chances of advancing past the group stage.
While not flashy, Kral is quietly effective in possession. He enjoys driving through midfield with the ball, although he can be a little overzealous at times. His short passing is also progressive enough to keep the play moving and bring his more creative team-mates into the game. This ensures that while he is a wonderful defensive asset, Kral is not a net negative in possession.
ATTACKING MIDFIELD, 2003, Pogoń Szczecin & POLAND
Whilst Wijndal was my banker pick for one to watch, Kacper Kozłowski is my bolter. At 17 years old, he will become the youngest-ever player to play in a UEFA European Championship if he makes an appearance for Poland in the group stage or beyond.
Kozłowski comes into the tournament as Paulo Sousa’s surprise pick following an impressive breakthrough season in Poland’s Ekstraklasa, in which he played just over 1,000 minutes for Pogoń Szczecin. His recent ascent is even more remarkable given that he missed almost eight months of football following a traffic collision on his way to training in January 2020.
He played in both pre-tournament friendlies and did pretty well in limited minutes. That said, he almost certainly won’t start at this tournament, not from the off anyway. But don’t be surprised if he is (one of) the players that Poland turn to when they’re in need of an impact off the bench.
That influence would come in the form of his ability between lines – he has the neat technical talent to be a disruptive threat in those spaces. Kozłowski is a precocious player who can receive on the half-turn and drive at unbalanced defences, either by dribbling directly at defenders or attempting incisive passes down the sides of them. He isn’t afraid to drop deep to help build play, but his primary value lies in his ability to quicken attacks in advanced areas.
He’s also shown a promising knack of getting into decent goalscoring situations: Kozłowski floats into the penalty area once play has spread into wider areas and has gotten on the end of crosses and loose balls to get decent shots off fairly often. His final action in the final third can be erratic, but the intent behind them is a good one most of the time.
All of this may have come a bit too soon for Kozłowski, and much of the focus should be on future cycles, but being involved in itself is indicative of his exciting upside.
That is Kacper Kozłowski, a surprise pick by Poland but an exciting one. If he makes an appearance, he will become the youngest player in the competition’s history. Jude Bellingham will beat the standing record too, and he is more likely to get on the pitch.
There are plenty to pick from, including the five we highlight in this piece. One player that wasn’t mentioned who could have an explosive introduction to a mainstream audience is Czech Republic goalscorer, Adam Hložek – if he manages to shake off his injury issues and get on the pitch
Turkey are a good shout in this category. Not only did they have one of the best records during qualifying, they also have a cohensive and quite talented squad that ranks as the youngest at the entire tournament. Ukraine have a similar profile too. Denmark and Sweden, solid sides with quality in the right areas, could also go quite far.