2021 Under-21 European Championships:
Team of the Group Stage
Nmecha Gakpo Vitinha Nelsson Schuurs Frattesi
The group stage of the 2021 Under-21 European Championships have been completed, with the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy, Denmark, France, Portugal and Croatia progressing through to the quarter-finals, while England were the victims of the tournament’s only true shock group stage elimination.
Below, we’ve compiled a Team of the Tournament comprised of a collection of the players that impressed most across the three group stage matches.
Our team features players from eight of the tournament’s 16 teams, including representation from Russia and Romania, two teams that were unfortunate not to progress past the group stage.
Click on the player’s name to automatically scroll to its mini profile.
The Starting Eleven
Italian goalkeeper Marco Carnesecchi could only be beaten by his own team-mate across his three appearances in the group stage. A looping header deflected off Cristian Maggiore condemned Italy to a disappointing 1-1 draw in their opening game against the Czech Republic, but outside of that moment, Carnesecchi rarely looked like being beaten.
One vulnerable moment came against Slovenia, but a well-placed foot as he reacted sharply to a close-range opportunity highlighted the quality of the Italian’s ability to make reflex saves. The other close shave came against Spain, where a very well executed double save saw Carnesecchi deny both Pipa and Javi Puado.
While his distribution looks far from assured, his pure shot-stopping ability made him far too difficult to leave out of our Team of the Group Stage.
In matching David Raum’s attacking intensity on the other side, few right-backs have stood out at this year’s Under-21 European Championships, except Thierry Correia.
Physically, the Portuguese full-back has been a level above most – if not all – of the players he has faced; top-five league pedigree really shows at this competition.
The Valencia man has been two-way, tracking well, not forgetting his defensive responsibility and supported his team-mates well with his athleticism. In Group D’s showpiece, Portugal bettered England in every department, Correia hugging the touch-line and stretching Aidy Boothroyd’s structure.
In getting forward, Correia never looked anything other than purposeful, winning his individual battles, showcasing impressive range with long balls and cross-field passes when Portugal needed an outlet.
The importance of being able to switch the point of an attack is a role of increasing importance for full-backs. Correia’s confidence and profligacy in this endeavour suggests he can be much more than a simple energy man.
Given that under-21 tournaments is the highest level of youth international competitions, it is little surprise to find players dotted around the various squads with a litany of first-team appearances at club level, a smattering of senior caps and a real assuredness.
Denmark centre-back Victor Nelsson is one of those players; expert in his defensive positioning, safe in possession and a calming leadership presence amongst a well-organised structure.
The Danes impressed in the opening round of fixtures with a surprise victory over France. Aside from the French side’s reluctance to get down the sides and inability to pick out Odsonne Édouard, the Danish defensive display was rigid.
It moved, worked, pressed and pulsed in tandem, like one beating, collective unit – Victor Nelsson was at the very heart, marshalling those who recognise him as their captain.
The team blew away Iceland despite the 2-0 scoreline in the second match, outclassing their Scandinavian counterparts on and off the ball. Nelsson’s solidity, borne out of his staggering 34 caps at under-21 level, underpinned three very adept wins and clean sheets against some stacked attacks.
A third and final victory came versus Russia who threatened more than France and Iceland, but Nelsson and the Danes stood firm yet again. Given the calibre of opponents Denmark were up against, it would not be hyperbolic to suggest their trio of clean sheets have been the best-earned.
A picture of consistency throughout the group stage, Perr Schuurs was everything you would come to expect from an AFC Ajax centre-back: confident on the ball, possessing good range, recovery speed and expert anticipation.
Schuurs was the right-sided centre-back for each of the Netherlands’ group matches, firing off a flurry of long passes, making decisive clearances and reading opposition danger well.
Against Romania and Hungary, the Netherlands enjoyed much of the ball; Schuurs was always looking to progress play as his first priority throughout these encounters.
When progressing the ball forward no longer became an option for his teammates on that right-hand side, never did they turn back to find Schuurs in any other position than ready to receive in plenty of space. There he would reset, and switch the point of attack.
Versus Germany, that brief remained, but Schuurs was called into more defensive action, making nine clearances but crucially misplacing just three of his 58 attempted passes, which given how high Germany engaged the Dutch defensive is rather impressive.
The Netherlands then went into their final game against Hungary knowing a win would secure qualification and did so in emphatic fashion to finish as group winners. But, it could have been so very different had Schuurs not prevented a one-v-one chance just 12 minutes in, diverting a Hungarian shot away from goal with a decisive tackle.
A very, very safe pair of hands who championed simplicity.
David Raum’s default setting is head up and cross.
He did exactly that in Germany’s opening 2021 UEFA Under-21 European Championship game with Hungary, providing for Ridle Baku to score the Germans’ second goal of a 3-0 win, with an expertly-whipped delivery
Raum attempted 18 crosses against the Hungarians, and 14 versus Romania, emphasising just how confident he is with his delivery from that left flank when afforded the space to test his range.
Defensively, Germany were solid throughout the group stage, with Raum starting twice at left-back. The areas of the pitch Raum covered against Romania and Hungary were predominantly that of an auxiliary winger.
The knockout rounds will test his top level capacity, having never played in the Bundesliga before, but in an attacking sense at least, Raum has been the most striking left-back at this tournament.
It tallies with his exploits at club level, where he has already hit double figures for Greuther Fürth this season in terms of assists, subsequently earning a move to TSG Hoffenheim at the end of this campaign.
This tournament has been one lacking in overall quality, but not where it concerns midfielders who can dictate the tempo of a game.
Vitinha has been one of the more effortless distributors and progressors of play, and certainly Portugal’s finest. In a squad with Gedson Fernandes and Florentino Luís, Vitinha’s comfort at the base of midfield, whether that be in a double-six or as a single-pivot, has rendered the big-name duo surplus to requirements for Rui Jorge’s side.
Portugal have dominated the ball in games, and that’s largely down to Vitinha’s ability to keep moves ticking over, waiting for opportune moments to try something more expansive.
As far as patience and positioning goes, Vitinha has not been matched.
On a number of occasions in Portugal’s opening two matches, Vitinha tried to assist his teammates with a floated ball over the top, and achieved it on Matchday Three. His deep cross was headed in at the near post by Diogo Queirós following the breakdown of a corner.
Never rushed nor hurried, Vitinha has been comfortably one of the best, and understated technicians throughout the group stage.
Former Bayern Munich academy player Niklas Dorsch was the chief conductor of Germany’s ball progression from deep from his role at the base of his side’s midfield. While not supremely confident looking to play through the lines, it was Dorsch’s sweeping cross-field switches that routinely opened up wide areas for German attackers to outnumber and create overloads on the flanks.
But it was off the ball where the defensive midfielder’s contributions were most keenly felt. His ability to defend large amounts of space gave Germany’s players the freedom to be more adventurous with their ventures into attack. Chief among them was Nico Schlotterbeck, who took the opportunity to carry the ball from defence into attack with Dorsch tucking in behind him.
The German made several key interventions, forming an almost impenetrable wall that helped restrict the central channel – a pivotal reason for why Germany faced just seven shots on target across their three group games.
Despite Russia’s group stage elimination, Arsen Zakharyan shone brightly in a Russian unit that threatened to do so much more in this tournament.
Zakharyan produced a sublime performance in Russia’s 4-0 opening matchday win against Iceland, winning a penalty with a wonderful run into the penalty box and later scoring brilliant solo goal. It was the best we saw from any attacking midfielder all tournament, with players in the position generally struggling to make an impact in clogged central attacking zones.
At 17, Zakharyan was one of the youngest players to grace the tournament, but his awareness, suprising mobility for his size and technical quality all shone through as the Dynamo Moscow starlet also performed well despite Russia’s inability to score in tough contests against France and Denmark.
In the match against France, he had a wonderful chance to open the scoring after four minutes, but shot straight at the goalkeeper. But he struggled most in this game, with France throwing bigger bodies at him while he was forced deeper into his own half.
Against Denmark and also chasing an early 2-0 deficit, he continued to show a willingness and ability, perhaps more than any other player at the tournament, to pick up possession in the channels to create opportunities for others, despite the Danish low block constricting space.
As Germany struggled to break a resolute Hungarian defensive block in their opening group game, the ball spread wide to Ridle Baku in a huge amount of space on the right wing. A perfectly directed cross from the right-winger, who generally plays at right-back for VfL Wolfsburg, landed flush on the head of Lukas Nmecha, who fired home to kick-start Germany’s Under-21 European Championships campaign.
Minutes later, he had his own poaching effort double his nation’s lead, as he directed a David Raum cross goalward. And not long after that, he was on hand to fire home a rebound from a Mërgim Berisha strike that hit the crossbar.
While there were no more goal involvements, his tournament continued in the same vein, with the German’s looking to Baku to provide width in a system that often turned into a three-man defence which saw him stationed primarily as a wing-back.
While Baku is a little undersized, it is his speed and technical quality that he looks to capitalise on as he stands wide on the touch-line, ready for any opportunity to blast forward and create overloads out wide, or shift the ball centrally.
With Germany’s group stage opponents looking to shut down central spaces, Baku’s role in stretching play wide was critical in ensuring Germany could still function effectively as an attacking threat, while his own ability to seek out spaces made him one of Germany’s most dangerous players through the right-side channel as well.
Lukas Nmecha continues to develop into a wonderful all-round attacking threat, combining a mix of dominant physical attributes, excellent mobility and ability to cover the ground, high-intensity defensively and ever-improving penalty box quality.
His goals in the first two games were both vitally important to Germany’s qualification. The first, a well-taken header, put Germany ahead after being frustrated by Hungary for the first 60 minutes of their opening game. The second goal, a late tap-in against the Netherlands, ended up being critical to Germany’s qualification after they were held to a 0-0 draw in their last game against Romania, eventually securing progression to the quarter-final stage on goal difference.
Nmecha is a difficult player to play against, he harries defenders, throws his body around, and causes a general nuisance in the final third. He is a bruiser that would not be fun to mark. He was a dominant goal-scorer for Manchester City at youth level too, and while that part of his game fell away early in his senior career, indications from his season at Anderlecht and from this tournament show that large improvements are being made.
At this tournament, he was a continuous threat in-behind and helped to stretch the defence or pin individual defenders deep, while also doing well to reposition himself in the penalty area once play shifted out wide.
The Netherlands and Cody Gakpo certainly grew into this year’s Under-21 European Championships after a tepid draw against a well-drilled Romania. Their second game brought a better showing from Gakpo, completing six of his eight dribbles across various areas of the pitch.
A player who can beat pressure, and opponents at will is one who will always stand out at a youth international tournament.
His presence in the left-hand half-space against Hungary was something the co-hosts could not deal with. In the 6-1 win to close out the group, Gakpo had a hand in four of the Netherlands’ goals, two of his own, as well as an assist and the winning of a penalty.
Tucking inside, posing as a touchpoint for Sven Botman and Mitchell Bakker to fire passes into between lines, Gakpo found some nice spaces to put his foot on the ball, turn and play positively and directly as he did versus Germany.
His ball-striking has been typically very good, likewise with his body feints and generally confident demeanour in possession.
It perhaps seems strange for the Goalkeeper of the group stage to have been a player with no clean sheets across three games, but Kjell Scherpen gave a good account of himself, despite conceding in each match.
In the Netherlands’ opening game of the tournament, with the score poised at 1-1 midway through the second half, Scherpen made a stunning reflex save to deny Romania from point-blank range. He repeated the goalkeeping heroics in stoppage time to keep the scores level, beaten only be an outstanding Andrei Ciobanu free-kick.
Scherpen made nine saves during the group stage, the most of any goalkeeper progressing to the quarter-finals. Six of those came from inside his penalty area.
Unlike Denmark’s Oliver Christensen who made more from within 18 yards and kept three clean sheets, Scherpen was sharp with his reactions across each game. Christensen on the other hand pulled out a show-stopping display against Russia, but was hardly troubled by France and Iceland who managed three shots on goal between them.
Scherpen was one of the least expansive goalkeepers at the tournament, preferring to play short and allow his teammates to create. As a consequence, he maintained 86% pass accuracy across the three games, bettered only by Germany’s Finn Dahmen.
He stuck to the brief well, and was duly rewarded, handed the gloves in AFC Ajax’s 2-1 win over SC Heerenveen immediately following the conclusion of the international break.
Juan Miranda’s two appearances at the Under-21 European Championships were typical of a player with experience at both La Liga and Bundesliga level. He facilitated internal rotations on the left-hand side versus Slovenia, holding his position extremely well as an attacking left-back.
His link-up with Marc Cucurella on that flank was a key reason for Spain’s wearing down of their opponents in the opening fixture, controlling well whenever he received and playing vertically when the opportunity presented itself. Miranda was positioned over the halfway line for the vast majority of the two games he played, outlining his comfort on the ball in more congested, time-pressured spaces.
The 21-year-old was alert and effective without ever appearing spectacular, the type of performance a reliable full-back puts in. His positioning was aggressive, even against Italy when Spain dominated for large parts, and yet only on rare occasions did Miranda appear hurried or uncomfortable in possession. He knew when to clear, when to play out and when to slow the tempo.
The full-back’s crossing was searching and targeted more often than not, and his importance to the team considerable, emphasised by Luis de la Fuente’s decision to rest him for the final group match against the Czech Republic with only a draw required for progression.
There is just something about Hugo Guillamón that screams Sergio Ramos. Spain’s slightly undersized centre-back is aggressive, technically strong and highly intelligent in equal measure. Only a half-time substitution against Italy due to a (soft) yellow card kept him from taking part in three 90-minute clean sheets, with Spain being one of three teams to play the entire group stage without conceding.
Guillamón was always in control, just as his team were, as they conceded just three shots on target for the entire tournament. He struggled to get into the starting XI for this team purely because of the lack of defensive work he was able to showcase, but whenever danger did emerge, he was able to either close it down immediately, or foul to allow his team to recover. His own recovery speed is impressive and it allows him to defend a lot of space in behind and makes him difficult to beat even when isolated in defence.
Even more important, he is assured in possession, allowing him to easy function within Spain’s system; primarily as someone that recycles to the flanks, but also occasionally as he looks to force play through the middle of the field.
Nikolas Nartey set the tone for his Under-21 European Championships inside the second minute of Denmark’s opening game with France. Surging towards his own goal, he crunched 18-year-old Eduardo Camavinga near the byline, got to his feet and set about making the teenager’s evening an extremely unpleasant one.
No. 6 for his country, Nartey is a destroyer and performed a highly functional and effective role within a defensive triangle made up of Nelsson, Sørensen and himself.
Playing just in front of the defence, Nartey covered lateral spaces well, gave players like Camavinga an awful time of it, sticking like glue to whoever positioned themselves between lines whenever he was off the ball and not the most immediate passing option.
For a player so combative, to have committed just three fouls across his two appearances is emblematic of a player with expert timing and anticipation of his challenges.
Admittedly, his first-touch could be a little wobbly but the defensive side of his game was peerless.
When in possession, often receiving with his back to goal – and danger – from goalkeeper Oliver Christensen, Nartey would open his body and spray a left-footed pass out to the left-hand channel. Arguably the most impressive goal of the tournament, Denmark’s only goal in the win against France, originated from such a pass.
Davide Frattesi is the workhorse that held the Italian midfield together. His physicality and powerful two-way running was the only ever-present in Italy’s midfield and defence across the three group matches, with other big names such as Sandro Tonali and Nicolò Rovella missing matches through suspension.
Frattesi is not a midfielder that will give his team a huge amount of control over the tempo of a game. In possession, he is high-octane; driving forward with lung-bursting runs in a manner that lacks a little bit of grace, but is nonetheless effective. He is direct: a quality that some of the tournament’s midfielders could have used a little more of.
Off the ball, Frattesi plays the role of chief disruptor, unsettling opposition midfielders with his uncompromising pressure and physicality.
It was his strong challenge that won the ball for Gianluca Scamacca’s crucial opener in the 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic. Then against Spain he came closest of anyone to breaking the 0-0 deadlock when his shot from range was parried onto the crossbar. He was similarly damaging against Slovenia, winning a penalty while also making key contributions in other strong forays forward for the Azzurri.
Andrei Ciobanu was one of the surprises of the tournament. The FC Viitorul Constanța midfielder was Romania’s talisman, the go-to guy to get on the ball to make things happen as he worked his way up and down the field on the left side of his team’s three-man midfield.
His right foot is his strongest weapon, with he and his side both trusting that he can use it to be the side’s creative threat as well as a threat on goal from range. As his team’s go-to man to progress the ball, Ciobanu would almost always choose to either play the safe ball wide to Alexandru Matan, or to try a more audacious ball into the striker George Ganea – he was given the license to take risks and potentially lose the ball. It was his shooting from range that was Romania’s saving grace in their opening game, when he guided a perfect free-kick into the top corner to equalise in his country’s 1-1 draw with the Netherlands.
His defensive effort was also very important. Romania used their wide players to drop centrally out of possession, utilising their two central midfielders on either side to cover space wide and protect the full-backs. Ciobanu performed this role more than adequately; he is not super quick, but more than mobile and strong enough to sit in a deep block and play his role.
Fedor Chalov has been around long enough now for us to now he is a very multi-functional striker. With a penalty and three assists in Russia’s 4-0 win against Iceland, he demonstrated his effectiveness combining with others in the final third, even if some of the assists were slightly fortuitous. Nonetheless, his combination play throughout the tournament was a highlight, and his penalty box nous is undeniable.
Chalov is a fully-fledged Russian international for a reason. Firstly, he gives you an amazing amount of effort on the defensive front; he chases down just about anything, presses defenders with intensity, and even dropping deep into the midfield to clog space, win the ball back, and then play creator as he bursts forward with possession.
Against tougher opponents in France and Denmark, Chalov underlined his quality despite not hitting the scoresheet. In the match against France especially, the Russian showed his quality as the focal point of attack, possessing the strength to hold the ball up physically against larger opponents, while having the mobility, tenacity, and know-how to pin back the French defensive line back as well as humanly possible.
We already knew he was good, but it is nice to be reminded.