Written by Lewis Done – @lewis_done
With the 2021 European Under-21 Championship kicking off this week, I’ve picked out five youngsters who could become the standout talents of this generation.
Noni Madueke, 19, England
With an England squad boasting the likes of Hudson-Odoi, Smith Rowe, Ebere Eze & Curtis Jones, Madueke may seem like a surprise player to highlight in Aidy Boothroyd’s star-studded England Under-21 squad, but, after taking the tough decision to leave Tottenham’s academy for Eindhoven at 16, he has developed away from spotlight and added pressure of the Premier League and looks to have a bright future ahead of him.
Although not guaranteed to start for England, he provides a useful weapon for the Three Lions to utilise from the bench. The predominantly a right-sided winger, Madueke’s left foot, pace and trickery have seen him pose a threat from anywhere across the front three. Noni is flourishing in the Eredivisie with 9 goals and 6 assists in just 27 games so far this season. On the international stage Madueke has represented England at youth level, showing his eye goal is 4 gaols in 9 games for U18s.
A top talent with huge potential, it is no surprise that Europe’s biggest clubs – he is currently being heavily linked with both Bayern Munich & Arsenal – are interested in the forward and an impressive tournament would only add to that.
Alban Lafont, 22, France
Lafont has been one of the first names on the team sheet for France’s age group teams since 2015. After progressing through the academy of AS Lattoise, Lafont signed for Toulouse in 2014, where he became the youngest goalkeeper ever to play in Ligue 1 at just 16 years and 310 days old when making his debut the following year.
He went on to make over 100 appearances for Toulouse across all competitions, before earning a big money transfer to a Fiorentina. Lafont moved with the aim of emulate the goalkeeping legends Francesco Toldo and Sébastien Frey. However, his time at La Viola only last one season as he failed to live up to expectation; his impressive repertoire of saves overshadowed by a string of high-profile errors. Lafont said of his performances “they were not the best” and having lost his starting place he was keen secured regular first team football; resulting in a move to Nantes on a two-season long loan with an option to sign Lafont permanently for a €7 million transfer fee.
The move to a struggling Nantes has turned out to be a success. Lafont has regained his formed and has shown considerable development since returning to France. The stats show he is now far more dependable, having no errors that have led to a shot in 57 Ligue 1 matches, and his Goals Prevented Rate of 0.91 this season is 10th out of 17 goalkeepers in French top-flight football this season.
The 22-year old’s performance against PSG earlier this month is the highlight of the season so far. His eye-catching performance saw Lafont make four outstanding saves to ensure his team took all 3 points in a shock 2-1 win.
With a strong French squad, including the likes of Jules Koundé and Amine Gouiri, expect to see Lafont take the team into the latter rounds of the tournament.
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Sven Botman, 20, Netherlands
Possibly the highest-rated of the current crop of Dutch prospects, Botman was heavily linked with a move to Anfield in the wake of the season-ending injury to Van Dijk. It is easy to see why Jurgen Klopp would consider the left-footed centre-back a true talent, with the potential to become a figure head for the Dutch national team and follow in the footsteps of compatriot Matthijs de Ligt and star on the biggest stage for any of Europe’s elite clubs.
Botman joined Ajax aged nine, progressing through the ranks, although, he failed to make the grade at Ajax, never making a competitive first-team appearance for them, his performance for Jong Ajax (the reserve team of Ajax) have led to him representing his country at every youth level, from Under-15s to Under-21s.
Unable to gain a place in the starting eleven, he left Ajax on-loan 2019-20 for fellow Dutch top-flight side Heerenveen in search of first team football. The move proved successful as he became a mainstay, playing every minute of the 26 Eredivisie games, prior to completing a move to Lille in the summer. Botman has settled in quickly and has played a key role in Lille, conceding just 19 goals so far this season, the fewest in France’s top tier.
Botman’s imposing physical traits have seen him win 71% of his duals, the highest success rate across Europe’s top five leagues, which may not be a surprise, as he is just shy of 2 metres tall and is incredibly strong in the air. Coupled with the fact he is clearly comfortable with the ball at his feet, with a pass completion rate of 86% and having completed the third-most passes in Ligue 1, it’s clear that Botman is so much more than a defensive bully.
His ability has led to a call-up to Frank de Boer’s squad for Nations League games against Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina in November 2020, and he will be hoping his performances will highlight his ability to fill the gap created by Van Dijk’s injury, in the coming weeks, and cement a place in the senior squad for the main Euros come the summer.
Fedor Chalov, 22, Russia
Having played 115 Russian Premier League matches, scoring 40 goals and appearing in the UEFA Champions League for arguably the biggest team in Russia, Chalov comes into the Euros as one of the most experienced players in the tournament. He is unlikely to be phased by the occasion having represent the Russian senior side, making his debut for the team in a UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier against Belgium a far back as March 2019.
Although the goals have dried up, with just 5 goals from 28 appearances so far this season, the standard of his performances still caught the eye of several Premier League clubs in January.
With Chalov a former winner of the Russian league’s top goal scorer award who boasts a hit-rate of a goal every in three games and has had involvement in 60 goals since his debut in November 2016, he has an impressive tally for such a young player and the third highest overall in the league. If Chalov can find his form early in the tournament, he is an outside bet for Golden Boot.
With the strong Russian links at the club, it is no surprise that Chalov has been linked with a potential move to Chelsea. However, a strong tournament here for the vastly experienced 22-year-old, could see a host of top European Clubs lining up to try and prise the jewel of Russian football away from CSKA Moscow.
Sandro Tonali, 20, Italy
Tonali’s inclusion on this list comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen the man dubbed the next Andrea Pirlo make thinks tick at Brescia last year and is now starting to settle into life at Italian giants AC Milan (especially, as I have tried to avoid having two keepers on here, and therefore ruled out his club and country teammate Donnarumma).
Having impressed with Brescia during his debut season, building a reputation for his close dribbling and passing ability; assisting seven and scoring one, Tonali completed a move to AC Milan. Initially a one-year loan, but with an option to buy, for a fee rising to in the region of £27m, the 20-year-old has become a fan-favourite, having openly snubbed their close rivals Inter, in favour of joining the Rossoneri.
A regista; possessing the ability to direct play from his deep midfield role, his excellent movement, technical qualities, long range shooting and an elegant range of passing will lead Tonali to stand out as the talent of the tournament.
With a maturity beyond his years, and already showing glimpses of becoming Steven Gerrard and Luka Modrić all rolled into one; Sandro Tonali has already made the step-up to gain four caps for the national senior squad, and he will be one of the key players for Italy this month and in the coming years for AC Milan.
Are there any that have been missed? Let us know in the comments below!
Written by Lewis Done – @lewis_done