Coming up with a shortlist of midfielders likely to impress at this year’s UEFA European Championships U21 is a painstaking exercise. As the first round of fixtures have shown, the talent on offer is immense and many of these youngsters are already established regulars in their clubs/national sides. From Strootman to Isco, these our candidates to be the next big thing in the engine room.
Kevin Strootman (PSV and Holland) – By many tipped to develop into one of Europe’s best midfielders, Strootman has often been linked with Manchester United over the last 12-18 months. The PSV midfielder brings physicality and technique to Holland’s engine room, traits that have seen him earning 18 full caps for his country.
This season, the Dutchman developed an eye for goal, scoring six and assisting 10 in 32 Eredivisie games. Should he add some to his tally in Israel, expect his £10.5m price tag to levitate even further.
Isco (Malaga and Spain) – One of the first names on Manuel Pellegrini’s list, when the former Malaga manager will take charge at the Etihad, the 21-year-old helped Malaga to within a whisker of their first Champions League semifinal, attracting interest from different clubs across the continent.
Valued at just over £17m, Isco can play on both flanks but is normally deployed “in the hole” – a position from where he’s scored 11 goals in 39 matches between La Liga and the Champions League this season.
The Spaniard is under contract until 2016 but with Malaga banned from European competitions, expect some big clubs to come calling in the summer.
Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow and Russia) – Twelve months ago Dzagoev netted three times in Russia’s opening two games at Euro 2012, the CSKA playmaker having seemingly finally established himself as one of Europe’s top talents.
Alas, this year things haven’t developed quite as the 22-year-old had planned as he, rather surprisingly, decided to extend his deal with CSKA Moscow until 2015, rather than seek fortune in Western Europe.
The crafty playmaker, valued £22m by his club, enjoyed a typically good league campaign, scoring seven and assisting nine as CSKA reclaimed the Russian title. Dzagoev won’t be able to help his team-mates in their opening game against Spain, for he’ll only join the squad after Russia’s World Cup qualifier against Portugal on June 7.
Luca Marrone (Juventus and Italy) – It speaks volume for Marrone’s quality that when in August 2011 he returned from a loan spell at Siena, with which he had just achieved promotion to Serie A, newly-appointed manager Antonio Conte – who had managed him at Siena – opposed Juventus’ board decision to loan the youngster out for another season.
The 23-year-old has since established himself as one of Juventus’ most versatile players, having been deployed not only in his preferred position of defensive midfielder but also as centre-back to replace the injured Giorgio Chiellini. With Italy U21, though, Marrone partners Marco Verratti in midfield, providing muscles and energy to the Azzurrini’s engine room.
Juventus’ depth in midfield has somewhat limited Marrone’s playing time, could a good tournament see clubs prepared to meet the Italian champions’ £2.2m price tag?
Marco Verratti (PSG and Italy) – The Golden Boy of Italian football shocked many in his home country when he accepted PSG’s advances – and some wealthy retribution – and moved to Ligue 1, only a couple of months after inspiring his hometown club Pescara to their first Serie A season in 20 years.
At 5ft 5 Verratti makes up for a lack of physical presence with a silky touch and great vision, which have seen him compared to midfield maestro and beard lover Andrea Pirlo.
The 20-year-old first season under the Eiffel Tower was a mixed bag for, while PSG won the title, Verratti only produced four assists in 39 games for the Parisian club and was rumoured to be considering a move back to Italy.
Expect the £10m man to be one of the most observed players at this year’s tournament.
Valon Berisha (Red Bull Salzburg and Norway) – One of Norwegian football’s brightest talents, Sweden-born Berisha had trials at Chelsea, Manchester City and Aston Villa when aged 14-15 but chose against moving to England.
Perhaps, as Rune Hauge – one of Norway’s top agents – explained, Berisha didn’t find the prospect of spending time in a Premier League club’s academy very appealing: “Valon Berisha could have moved to almost every league club in England, but he would have gone straight to their academy, where nine out of ten players do not even reach the first team,” said Hauge.
An extremely accomplished central midfielder, Berisha scored six goals and assisted 13 in his first season with Red Bull Salzburg and his performances have earned him nine full caps for Norway.
Should Berisha shine in Israel, expect other Premier League clubs to come calling.
Thiago Alcántara (Barcelona and Spain) – By many considered Xavi’s natural heir, despite playing 35 games this season Thiago is still to establish himself as a regular at the Camp Nou.
Emerging in a midfield containing Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas is no mean feat but the Italy-born midfielder could soon seek to seize his chances elsewhere, with Manchester United reportedly keen to add him to their squad.
Player of the tournament as well as man of the match in the final two years ago, Thiago will be pivotal to Spain U21′s hopes of retaining the trophy and, perhaps, another excellent tournament will ensure him a starting spot at the Camp Nou next season.