The UEFA Under-21 European Championship begins on Wednesday, and we’ve identified five players worth keeping an eye on.
After the conclusion of a long club season, many football fans might be keen for a break themselves, but those eager to catch a glimpse of ‘The Next Big Thing’ should hold out for another few weeks.
The UEFA European Under-21 Championship begins on Wednesday, meaning some of the continent’s most promising players are set to be strutting their stuff in Romania and Georgia between now and 8 July.
Sixteen nations are competing, including England, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, defending champions Germany, and joint record champions Italy and Spain.
The tournament has been a proving ground for some of Europe’s best players over the past 45 years, with Davor Šuker, Luís Figo, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo and Thiago Alcântara among the previous recipients of the ‘Golden Player’ award.
There will be plenty of recognisable names in action again this year, and we’ve picked out five talents worth special attention.
Zeno Debast | Centre-back | 19 | Belgium
He may be the youngest player in the Belgium squad and has only been capped once for the U21s before, but Zeno Debast is already among the most experienced in the team. The 19-year-old defender has featured three times at senior level, starting on each occasion, and is a regular at club level with Anderlecht.
Debast just completed his maiden full season in the Anderlecht first team and was the youngest player across the top 10 leagues to play at least 2,700 minutes (2,904). It was a dreadful campaign for the club as they finished 11th in the Belgian Pro League, their worst final position since 1936-37 (also 11th), but Debast’s establishment was a positive.
Mostly part of a young-and-old partnership with Jan Vertonghen, Debast was the only Anderlecht player to appear in all 34 league games this season, making the right-sided centre-back spot his own. But he’s certainly no ordinary central defender.
He was a number 10 until a few years ago, and there are still signposts to that effect in his game. He is extremely positive in possession, particularly in terms of running with the ball. Debast is blessed with tremendous technical ability and close control, making lung-busting runs and eye-catching flourishes regular features of his game.
Across the top eight European leagues, he ranked sixth among defenders for total carries (904), which highlights his familiarity with the ball. But the drive in his play is demonstrated by carry progress.
His tally of 492 progressive carries (runs in possession that take the ball at least five metres upfield) was the fifthmost among the same group of defenders. As many as 205 of those saw him carry the ball for 10 metres or more; that figure was bettered by only seven others, but some of those were players who at least occasionally played as full-backs.
Debast is a truly modern centre-back with the ability to get bums off seats. He’s been linked quite intensely with Inter, but if he starts for Belgium U21s and is allowed to fully embrace his attacking urges, the queue for his services might get a little longer.
Martin Baturina | Central Midfielder | 20 | Croatia
Another potential gem of a midfielder produced by Croatia, Martin Baturina looks likely to have a long career at the top of the European game when he eventually leaves Dinamo Zagreb.
A dynamic and agile player, Baturina is comfortable playing as either a number 10 or slightly deeper such is his ability with the ball and using it well. People might be tempted to compare him to Luka Modrić, but he’s left-footed and a bit more explosive than the Real Madrid star – or at least this iteration of the 37-year-old.
Our new Opta Player Radars suggest he’s most comparable to RB Leipzig’s Dominik Szoboszlai and Barcelona star Pedri.
Baturina’s agility lets him change direction in a flash and he ultimately finished third for most completed dribbles (56) in Croatia’s top league, the Prva HNL. But even when he’s not trying to beat his man, the 20-year-old’s general positivity is a key feature.
Only Dinamo teammate Luka Ivanusec (525) recorded more carries than Baturina (491), though the latter made more of an impact in terms of progressing the ball, his 2,771 metres carried upfield being the second furthest in the division. He then ranked third for total progressive carries (259).
Silky, exciting and brave, Baturina – the son of once-capped former Croatia international Mate Baturina – also possesses real creative flair, with only Marko Livaja (13) managing more assists than the young midfielder (12). Admittedly, that was significantly higher than his 5.0 expected assists (xA), but that was still the fourth highest in the league, clearly putting him among the most creative.
In fact, again only Livaja (11) laid on more Opta-defined ‘big chances’ (10) – opportunities from which a player would be expected to score – and Baturina also sat third for chances created in open play (47).
Croatia find themselves in the fairly open Group B alongside co-hosts Romania, Ukraine and Spain, meaning there’s a strong possibility Baturina could be present deep into the tournament. Either way, he’ll be worth keeping a close eye on, particularly for Arsenal fans, given the Gunners’ apparent admiration for him.
Enzo Le Fée | Central Midfielder | 23 | France
For many players, the U21 Euros are about putting yourself in the “shop window”. Enzo Le Fée may be contracted to Lorient until next year, but he’s already declared an intention to move on. This is his chance to stoke further interest.
He’s just completed a fourth season in the Lorient first team and was one of the standout players in Ligue 1, the gifted, small central midfielder catching the eye with his technical ability and risk-taking.
Possessing great dynamism and a low centre of gravity, Le Fée is adept at receiving the ball under pressure and either offloading the ball on the half turn or spinning away from his pursuers altogether. He received 1,608 passes in Ligue 1 this term, the 14th most of all players in the division, highlighting a willingness to take charge. It’s also a fine record considering Lorient’s 46.4% possession average was better than only seven teams.
Le Fée’s 143 attempted dribbles saw him rank sixth in Ligue 1, but he climbed up to fourth for total carries (896). A proactive midfielder, there was often a real purpose and drive to his forays as well, with only six players bettering him in terms of total carry progress upfield (4,231.4m) and total progressive carries (417).
This positivity also fed into Le Fée’s creativity. He ranked 13th for chances created in open play (44), and joint 11th when that metric was combined (73) with secondary chances created – the pass before the one that set up the shot. Again, those were impressive numbers when examined in the context of the wider team’s output, as only Ajaccio (239) managed fewer shots (excluding those blocked) than Lorient (285).
It’s also worth noting Le Fée offers real threat with set-piece deliveries, his three corner assists bettered by only Caio Henrique (four) in Ligue 1, while he also scored a couple of goals direct from free-kicks in all competitions.
Premier League clubs were rumoured to be interested in signing Le Fée. More recently Rennes emerged as favourites, but if he manages to shine in a France side that’s overflowing with talent, Ligue 1 clubs might lose any hope of keeping him in the country.
Oscar Gloukh | Attacking Midfielder | 19 | Israel
Part of the Israel side that reached the final of the UEFA European U19 Championship last year, Gloukh has been highly regarded at home for several years now.
He was named in the Team of the Tournament at that competition in 2022, and his strike in the final – a 3-1 defeat to England after extra time – was deemed the best goal, as he brilliantly turned away from a defender with his first touch, dropped his shoulder and smashed home from 13 yards.
Gloukh continued to impress at senior club level with Maccabi Tel Aviv, earning full international honours in November before then securing a move to the Red Bull talent factory in Salzburg back in January. Tottenham and Barcelona had apparently been interested in him, but the teenager – still 18 at the time – opted for the route many of Europe’s most promising players are taking these days, with Salzburg offering genuine expertise in youth development.
And he’s made a strong start in the Austrian Bundesliga.
A very direct livewire in possession, Gloukh has averaged the third most successful dribbles per 90 minutes (3.1) in the competition (minimum 500 minutes played) since his debut on 11 February, offering Salzburg a real wildcard in the final third.
But he’s also shown he can provide an end product, with his 2.1 chances created per 90 minutes over the same period seeing him rank third as well. Gloukh does much of his best work in central areas and likes to operate in such spaces, but many of his runs involve coming in off the left flank.
Not that he always needs to dribble. His 20.0 passes ending in the final third is second only to Alexander Prass (20.7), though Gloukh is top for accurate passes in that area of the pitch (13.3), showing a degree of maturity around his decision-making and use of the ball.
That’s also reflected in his open-play build-up involvement. Gloukh was involved in 5.6 shot-ending sequences per 90 minutes for Salzburg this season, which was bettered by only two players (minimum 495 minutes) in the division over the same period. This highlights a sense of trust in him from teammates as well, not to mention his ability to get into threatening positions.
Even if he does star at this tournament, it’s unlikely Gloukh will be on the move in the near future. However, considering some of the talents who’ve come through at Salzburg in recent years, there’s certainly no harm tuning in to get a first glimpse of a player many believe is a future superstar.
Elye Wahi | Striker | 20 | France
The 2022-23 season was one of real progress for Montpellier forward Elye Wahi. After showing promise in 2021-22 with 10 Ligue 1 goals, he might’ve been tempted to move on. There was certainly interest.
But he stayed and went on to score 19 times this term, which is a total only Olivier Giroud (21 in 2011-12) has bettered in a single season for the club since the 1980s. It was a haul that cemented Wahi’s status as one of Europe’s most exciting young strikers.
Wahi posted an average of 0.64 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes, which only Loïs Openda (0.71) – who is in the Belgium U21s squad – and Kylian Mbappé (0.83) could trump over the season among players to feature for at least 1,000 minutes. The Montpellier forward also ranked as high as seventh for minutes per goal (133).
In the interest of balance, it’s worth pointing out that Wahi’s output came from 0.41 non-penalty xG per 90 minutes, so he scored more frequently than you’d expect the average player to from the quality of his chances. It’s easy to see why this might be the case, as well, because several of his efforts were aided by deflections or unimpressive goalkeeping. His second – of four (!) – against Lyon in May was arguably helped by both, and his strike against Toulouse in April was diverted away from the goalkeeper by a defender.
Nevertheless, the fact those goals were still awarded to Wahi speaks to his excellent accuracy. Of the Ligue 1 players (min. 1,000 minutes played) to average at least 1.0 shots (excluding blocks) per game this season, only three could better Wahi’s 73.1% shot accuracy, so in a way he could be credited with creating his own luck through such consistency in front of goal.
For all the deflected goals, however, there were also some spectacular ones. There was the outrageously deft, outside-of-the-boot glancing volley into the top-far corner in August’s 7-0 demolition of Brest; a remarkably acrobatic overhead kick in the October loss to Lyon; and we can’t forget the mazy solo run and left-footed across-goal finish against Angers at the start of March.
This also highlights Wahi’s well-roundedness as a striker. Sure, he likes to use his pace to get onto passes in behind the defence, but his technique, agility and confidence are also prominent when looking at the variety of goals he scores.
Still only 20, it would probably be better for Wahi’s development if he were to stay at Montpellier a little longer considering how much more youth-friendly Ligue 1 is than any other major league. But he’s already being tracked by some of Europe’s biggest clubs, with Arsenal said to be among them. If he continues to make strides in the manner of the past two years, he’ll likely have the pick of European giants within in a couple of seasons.