The major contenders for Euro 2012 have named starting XIs full of tried and tested options – but a few youngsters are looking to make their mark on the competition. Here, we profile five of the most promising players under the age of 21.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England
The Arsenal youngster seems to fit the bill as a classic wildcard – 18 years old, only one season of top-flight football under his belt, and uncapped until England’s 1-0 win over Norway at the weekend.
It’s highly unlikely that Oxlade-Chamberlain will start matches – there were question marks about his positional discipline in a couple of Arsenal’s big games this season, particularly the 2-1 defeat at home to Manchester United, when he was substituted despite looking like Arsenal’s most dangerous player. That was under Arsene Wenger, a coach who gives his players freedom of movement – so under Roy Hodgson, a much stricter coach in positional terms, he will surely be an impact sub.
In 2011/12 he went on 1.6 dribbles per game, more than any other Arsenal player, and that ability to run with the ball and take on full-backs makes him an attractive option from the bench – England don’t have any other wingers that are quite so direct. And while he’s inevitably been cast as the new Theo Walcott, a tag he finds frustrating, Oxlade-Chamberlain has more variety to his game, and will come inside into the centre of the pitch and see more of the ball. Unlike Walcott in 2006, expect to see him on the pitch at some point.
Christian Eriksen, Denmark
Eriksen travelled to the 2010 World Cup, but was too young to have a significant impact. Now, with two years more experience for Ajax, he’s Denmark’s main man. He’s arguably the most important playmaker for his team in the competition – whereas other playmakers of similar ability have natural replacements in their respective squads, Eriksen is responsible for almost all of Denmark’s creativity, a tough ask for a 20-year-old.
But Eriksen has shown he’s able to perform outside the Eredivisie, which can be an unreliable barometer of a player’s quality. He did well throughout Ajax’s six games in this season’s Champions League, playing 3.0 key passes per game, a figure only beaten by two men – Danny of Zenit St Petersburg and Portugal (sadly absent from this tournament through injury) and Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil. With Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery just behind Eriksen on this table, it’s clear he’s amongst the most creative players in Europe.
Denmark play a broadly similar style of football to Ajax – lots of width and good ball-playing ability at the back. The only concern is that too much of their play depends upon Eriksen, and in the 3-1 friendly defeat to Brazil at the weekend, he found himself spending much of the game tracking the opposition holding midfielder, and was never in space once Denmark won the ball. A little more positional freedom would be nice.
Alan Dzagoev, Russia
Venture a little further down that ‘key passes’ list from this season’s Champions League, past Messi, Robben, Ribery and Yoann Gourcuff (dropped from the French squad by Laurent Blanc) and you find Alan Dzagoev. He’s been touted as the ‘next big thing’ in Russian football for so long that it’s difficult to believe he’s still only 21 – but in his first major international tournament, now is his time to shine.
He’s likely to start on the opposite side of the pitch to Andrei Arshavin, with the two wide players given license to come inside and operate more centrally. That will suit Dzagoev, who is at his best when given something approaching a free role, and in a Russian midfield and attack that could feature five players from Zenit St Petersburg, CSKA’s Dzegoev is the odd one out, and will effectively be playing the role Danny plays at club level.
As well as being a great creative player, Dzagoev was Russia’s top scorer in qualifying with four goals, and he’ll be expected to chip in at this tournament. Regardless of whether Dick Advocaat goes for a sturdy target man (Roman Pavlyuchenko or Pavel Pogrebnyak) or the more mobile option in Alexander Kerzhakov, Russia’s striker will be told to create space and lay the ball off for Arshavin, Dzagoev and Roman Shirokov. In the weakest group, Dzegoev might emerge as a key player in this tournament.
Mario Gotze, Germany
As a double league winner with Borussia Dortmund, Gotze seems too established to be on this list – but at 19 years old, and the only teenager in a young Germany side, he’s well worthy of his place.
Jogi Low has been experimenting with different team shapes with a view to fitting Gotze into the side. In the 3-3 friendly draw with Ukraine earlier this year, he used both Gotze and Mesut Ozil behind the main forward in an adventurous 3-4-2-1 formation that looked good going forward, but caused problems at the back. At the weekend against Switzerland, Gotze was used notionally alongside Sami Khedira in the double pivot of a 4-2-3-1, although he inevitably pushed forward and made the side 4-1-4-1. Again, Germany scored three – though this time they conceded five, and it’s unlikely that Gotze will start there, considering Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos’ availability.
But Gotze’s able to fill any of the three attacking roles in a 4-2-3-1, and could push Thomas Muller for a start on the right – although he is more likely to be used as a substitute. He’s another fine dribbler – with 3.5 dribbles per game in the Bundesliga this season, only Franck Ribery, Ryan Babel and Gokhan Tore ran with the ball more frequently.
Nelson Oliveira, Portugal
This tournament might have come slightly too early for Oliveira, although his experience of coming off the bench for Benfica this season makes him a decent bet to do the same for Paolo Bento’s side here.
Portugal’s struggle for a reliable striker is well-known and the problem is often overstated, but while Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida are essentially target men, Oliveira seems closer to the type of striker Portugal had ten years ago, with Pauleta and Nuno Gomes – good movement, clever link-up play and a more obvious goal threat.
Oliveira showed in his cameo appearances in 2011/12’s Champions League that he’s more of an all-rounder than Postiga, the man who is likely to start upfront. Whereas Postiga recorded a 70.2% pass completion rate for Real Zaragoza this season, Oliveira’s was 87.5%. He’s raw and untested at international level, but offers a completely different style of play to Portugal’s other strikers – because of that, like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gotze, he’s likely to be used as an impact substitute at some point.