With the European Championship just days away, we identify nine stars aged 23 or under as our Euro 2024 players to watch.

Part of what makes major international football tournaments so captivating for many is the opportunity to see players they might not ordinarily have watched – or even heard of.

Every tournament, whether a World Cup or European Championship, has its breakout talents and Euro 2024 will be no different.

In this list, however, you’re not going to find the renowned superstars. You’ll see no Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Kylian Mbappé, Florian Wirtz or Jamal Musiala here; not Kobbie Mainoo, Lamine Yamal or Xavi Simons either.

No, you already know they’re pretty handy; the point of this is to identify young talents who might be a little more outside of the mainstream, players your dad’s not heard of, essentially (and if he has, kudos to him for still playing Football Manager).

Admittedly it’s a pretty loose brief with arbitrary boundaries, but there we go, it’s done.

So, read on for Opta Analyst‘s nine Euro 2024 players to watch…

Zeno Debast
Centre-Back, Belgium

Having just completed his second full season in Anderlecht’s senior team, Zeno Debast looks set for a big summer. Not only does it appear he’s joining renowned talent-spotters Sporting CP in a deal reportedly worth an initial €16 million, but Euro 2024 will be his major international tournament debut – and potentially the first of many.

Debast had been on the radar of numerous big clubs around Europe for a few years, with his style of play from centre-back very eye-catching.

Extremely comfortable on the ball and a good progressor of the play, it won’t come as a huge surprise to learn he was an attacking midfielder in youth football.

Now, though, he’s every inch the modern centre-back. His ease on the ball is demonstrated by the fact he averaged 27.8 carries (movements of five metres or more with the ball) per 90 minutes in the Belgian Pro League this season, which was the fourth most among all defenders (minimum 1,000 minutes played) in the top 10 European leagues.

Further to that, Debast’s tally of 174 carries that progressed the ball at least 10 metres upfield saw him rank 13th among the same group of players, with the caveat that several of those above him have the advantage of being full-backs.

Progressive Carries top 10 leagues
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Nominally the right-sided centre-back, Debast is tall, agile and forward-thinking. While his 84% open-play pass completion rate isn’t especially outstanding, he ranked second among Pro League centre-backs for progressive passes (136) and long balls (446), highlighting a positive mentality that can understandably lead to lower passing success.

Zeno Debast heat map

Comfortable in back four or back three, Debast has the tools to be a real asset for Belgium at Euro 2024 and beyond.

Strahinja Pavlovic
Centre-Back, Serbia

Serbia have produced some very capable defenders over the years; Strahinja Pavlovic appears to be another, and the Red Bull Salzburg talent represents something of a blend between the vintage and contemporary varieties of centre-backs.

You see, while Debast is perhaps more renowned for his abilities with the ball at his feet and passing, it’s Pavlovic’s physical attributes that make him really standout at first.

Basically, he’s an absolute unit, a prime physical specimen that no striker will enjoy playing against, and this really comes across in his defensive output.

Among all outfielders to play at least 1,000 minutes in the Austrian Bundesliga this season, just three players could better his 64.1% duels success rate despite him contesting at least 177 more than that trio. Meanwhile, only two outfielders could better Pavlovic’s 71.9% win rate in aerials – his total of 153 was more than three times that of the pair above him as well.

Nevertheless, the fact he’s a force of nature shouldn’t lead to misconceptions about his technique. We don’t want to say he’s “got a good touch for a big man”, but he’s certainly happy to get on the ball and power forward as he ranked third among outfielders for progressive carries (345) and joint-fifth for progressive carries at least 10m long (122), demonstrating his eagerness to get Salzburg on the front foot.

His surprising turn of pace helps here too, and it also makes his powers of recovery something to behold, because he really shifts once he gets going.

Progressive carries x Aerial duels
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

With 35 caps already at the age of 23, there will only be three – Illia Zabarnyi, Bukayo Saka and Dominik Szoboszlai – players under 24 at Euro 2024 with more senior caps than Pavlovic, who will in all likelihood line up on the left of a back three.

Whether he can help Serbia make a real impact remains to be seen, but there’s every chance Pavlovic stands out – in more ways than one.

Martin Baturina
Central Midfielder, Croatia

What do they feed midfielders in Croatia?! Martin Baturina is seemingly another gem off the production line and looks set for a career at the top of the European game when he eventually outgrows Dinamo Zagreb, whom he helped to a league and cup double this season.

Dynamic and agile, Baturina is somewhere between a number 10 and number 8 but possesses considerable ability with the ball and distributing it. People may be tempted to compare him to Luka Modrić, and perhaps he is the long-term heir, but Baturina is a little more explosive than the Real Madrid star – or at least this iteration of the 38-year-old.

Martin Baturina touches Dinamo Zagreb

Baturina likes to operate in the left half-space and brings vision, creativity and flair to his team in the attacking half; his 48 chances created in open play in the Croatian top flight in 2023-24 was the second most, while he also ranked second for dribbles attempted (100).

Martin Baturina chances created Dinamo Zagreb

That positivity on the ball is probably his greatest asset, though. He isn’t afraid to take the game by the scruff of the neck, and that drive combined with his bravery and technical ability makes Baturina able to quickly turn defence into attack by himself.

Only Dario Maresic – a defender, who therefore operates in less congested areas of the pitch – tallied more progressive carries this season than Baturina (174), and 100 of those saw him progress the ball by at least 10 metres, a figure bettered by just three players.

He even works hard off the ball in attacking areas, as demonstrated by his 22 possession regains in the final third being the fifth-best figure in the Prva HNL this term.

He’s been used sparingly by Zlatko Dalic so far, picking up just three senior caps, so he’ll likely have to be content with coming off the bench. But he’s the kind of talent who could definitely make an impact as a substitute if called upon, and he surely will be at some point.

Heorhii Sudakov
Central Midfielder, Ukraine

Part of the Ukraine side that beat France en route to the semi-finals of the 2023 Under-21 European Championship, Heorhii Sudakov looks likely to be the next young Ukrainian to fetch Shakhtar Donetsk a big fat cheque.

With a release clause reportedly set at €150 million and apparently subject to bids of over €40m that were rejected, Sudakov is already attracting interest from big clubs – at least, that’s what has been reported.

It’s also been claimed he’s hired PR people to boost his reputation in western Europe – Opta Analyst hasn’t been contacted though, promise! No, he’s included simply because he’s exciting and still a little outside the mainstream.

A technical, tidy midfielder who looks to get his team on the front foot, Sudakov has the eye for goal, creativity and invention to operate as a number 10 as well as the composure and ability in tight spaces to spray passes from a deeper position.

He was more the latter at last summer’s tournament, acting as Ukraine’s chief playmaker while also peeling away towards the left quite often, linking up with former Shakhtar teammate Mykhailo Mudryk.

Averaging 84.5 touches per 90 minutes, he was Ukraine’s most active player at the tournament in that regard, while only centre-back Arsenii Batahov (74.8) played more passes than the sought-after Shakhtar midfielder (68). Sudakov ranked fourth for passes played in the opposition’s half (46.8), however, highlighting his positivity even when playing deeper.

His confidence on the ball was also came across in how often he chose to run with it, as his 28.2 carries per 90 was the most of any midfielder to play at least 100 minutes in the tournament.

Heorhii Sudakov carries Under-21 European Championship

Sudakov and Ukraine certainly won’t see as much of the ball as that this summer, though he was the non-defender with the most touches (65.5) and carries (18.7) per 90 for them in qualifying.

Either way, having started all 10 Euro 2024 qualifiers, he’s primed for a key role in Germany – if they can replicate their Euro 2020 run to the quarter-finals, Sudakov will certainly have played his part.

João Neves
Defensive Midfielder, Portugal

Portugal are never short of pure technical talents, which makes João Neves’ breakthrough at senior international level as a teenager all the more impressive, with the 19-year-old just completing a fine maiden full campaign in Benfica’s first team.

Nominally a defensive midfielder, Neves boasts considerable self-belief when carrying the ball out from the defence, with his delicate control and whippet-like agility huge assets in his team’s attempts to beat the press, whether that’s Benfica or Portugal.

“He’s 19 but plays like he’s 30,” João Félix said of Neves last year, providing an insight into the teenager’s almost trademark on-pitch maturity – he even religiously tucks in his jersey.

“I’ve known Neves for some time. He’s from my brother’s generation, so I’ve seen him play since he was 12, 13 years old. He’s always been [small], but he never loses a duel, whether in the air or on the ground.”

Okay, “never” is a little hyperbolic but Neves is very feisty and energetic, with his 13.6 duels contested per 90 in the Primeira Liga this season seeing him rank third among midfielders (minimum 1,000 minutes played), while no outfielders matched his average of 8.2 possession regains per game.

Joao Neves possession won

But he wasn’t just the little pest who ran around midfield hassling opponents. No, he was the conduit whom nearly everything went though. No player averaged more touches (98.2) across the whole division, while only Sporting CP centre-back Gonçalo Inácio bettered his 77.6 passes and 69.8 passes completed per 90 minutes.

Neves was crucial to providing structure to Benfica’s play, tallying 83 involvements in shot-ending open-play build-up sequences (3.2 per 90) – when you remove the action of creating the chance or taking a shot from these build-ups, only four players in the whole division registered more, highlighting how important and effective he was to the club in possession.

Furthermore, these sequences accumulated an expected goals (xG) total of 14.96, more than anyone else in the Primeira Liga.

Benfica sequence involvements

With Portugal coach Roberto Martínez blessed with real quality in the middle of the park, Neves might have to make do as a substitute initially. The ball gravitates to him, however, so not only should you expect to be impressed when he comes on, his ability to help control a game could be very useful towards the end of matches.

It’s no wonder Manchester United and Manchester City are apparently keen on Neves’ signature.

Nico Williams
Left-Winger, Spain

Admittedly, Williams probably strays closer to ‘well known’ than most in this list, but the key thing is he’s exciting, a player of great potential, and he will play for Spain at Euro 2024 (barring a late injury of course).

Williams plays mostly from the left and does fit the mould of a modern winger in that he generally likes to cut inside onto his stronger foot. However, his left foot is strong enough for him to offer a threat on the outside too, recording several assists with runs to the byline this season alone.

Nico Williams chance-creating carries

The unpredictability Williams offers is aided by his searing pace, not to mention his technique and ability to beat a defender. While Spain are of course known for the intricacy of their football in midfield, Williams is a different, more explosive kind of outlet; “verticality, as the Spanish say (well, they’d actually say verticalidad…), is what he brings, but he still doesn’t look out of place in a team renowned for subtlety.

That’s partly because he’s so reliable as a creator. While young wingers can often be criticised for their end product, 21-year-old Williams recorded more open-play assists than anyone else in La Liga during 2023-24 (10). Sure, his open-play expected assists (xA) figure of 6.4 – seventh best in the league – suggests he was helped by some particularly good finishing, such as Gorka Guruzeta’s clever strike from a Williams cut-back against Alavés in March.

But Williams still does very well to create the danger and find a well-placed pass into the danger zone for that particular example. It’s just very good wing play, and he’s made a habit of that.

He’s managed to marry the reliability of his final pass with the threat he offers carrying the ball, with only five players in La Liga bettering his 43 carries ending in a shot or chance created in 2023-24, while no one could match his seven assist-ending carries.

Often tentatively linked with a move away from Athletic Bilbao, there’s every chance this is the tournament that propels Williams into the mainstream.

Leo Sauer
Left-Winger, Slovakia

If your dad has heard of Slovakia’s twice-capped winger Leo Sauer then he’s definitely made a joke about singer Leo Sayer looking well for 76. If he’s still uninitiated to the Feyenoord youngster, then that gag is coming, mark our words.

While Nico Williams is probably this list’s most recognisable name, Sauer’s likely the least well known. Still just 18 years old, the Slovakia prospect has only 275 minutes of top-flight football under his belt and is yet to start an Eredivisie game for his club.

He’s had to make do with sporadic substitute appearances, 13 of them in the league to be exact.

And yet, Sauer’s still managed to catch the eye, racking up five Eredivisie goal involvements (admittedly this does include one assist vs Volendam when Feyenoord scored with their opponents’ goalkeeper up the other end for a corner), or one every 55 minutes. He also laid on 12 chances for teammates – one every 23 minutes.

Leo Sauer goal involvements

Sauer isn’t so much the type of winger that’s going to devastate defences with his pace, but he’s very good in one-on-one situations, pretty powerful and possesses real craft. Think of him more like a Jack Grealish type than, say, an Anthony Gordon (not that Gordon lacks any of the aforementioned skills!).

His somewhat languid style makes Sauer stand out as a fairly cultured winger, and despite not even being a first-team regular for Feyenoord, his technique is appreciated to the extent that he’s become a set-piece taker when he’s on the pitch. That’s pretty unusual.

Both of Sauer’s senior Slovakia caps have come since March, and each one as a substitute.

Further to that, he’ll be the third-youngest player at the tournament, so don’t expect him to slot straight into the starting XI on Matchday 1 against Belgium. Nevertheless, he’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for as Feyenoord are very excited about his potential.

Johan Bakayoko
Right-Winger, Belgium

Among numerous standout performers in an excellent 2023-24 season for PSV, Johan Bakayoko emerged as a leading star and now appears to be a target for some of Europe’s top clubs this summer, with Arsenal apparently among those interested.

Long considered a player of significant potential at PSV, he had to be patient in waiting for his chance. With previous key players departing in 2023, Bakayoko got the opportunity to spread his wings in 2023-24 and he made the most of it.

The right-winger had a hand in 21 goals (12 goals and nine assists), a tally bettered only by PSV and Eredivisie top scorer Luuk de Jong (44) in the whole division. That made him one of the youngest players to manage 20 involvements among players in the top 10 leagues, with Bellingham (25) and Wirtz (22) the only two to register more and be younger than him.

Johan Bakayoko Goal Involvements

Bakayoko looks to cut inside onto his stronger left foot, and while this might make some players somewhat predictable, the PSV talent is comfortable going either way and consistently produced an end product.

In the 2023-24 season, Bakayoko averaged 2.5 chances created (2.3 from open play), 3.5 shots, and 3.3 completed dribbles on a per-90-minute basis in the Eredivisie. Among players with at least 1,500 minutes in the top 10 European leagues this term, only eight matched his output across those three metrics, including: Napoli star Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze, Leroy Sané at Bayern Munich, Porto’s Francisco Conçeiçao and fellow Belgian Jérémy Doku at Manchester City.

Granted, some will suggest the Eredivisie isn’t the same standard as the top leagues, and perhaps that’s true, but you can only beat what’s in front of you. So far, Bakayoko’s done a pretty good job of that and, along with Doku and Romelu Lukaku, he could form a pretty lively front three for Domenico Tedesco’s Belgium side.

Whether he starts or only comes off the bench, Bakayoko is bound to catch the eye.

Georges Mikautadze
Striker, Georgia

The 2023-24 season was a rollercoaster for Georges Mikautadze. After four promising campaigns across lower-league divisions in France and Belgium – also featuring in the latter’s top tier, the Pro League, while on loan at Seraing – Mikautadze earnt a big move to Ajax at the end of August 2023.

Only, his time in Amsterdam turned into a nightmare. Signed in a deal potentially worth up to €19 million, the sporting director who acquired him – Sven Mislintat – was sacked less than a month later due to a “broad lack of support within the organisation”. That obviously wasn’t a good sign.

A stylistic misfit for coach Maurice Steijn and then his successor, John van ‘t Schip, Mikautadze was in January 2024 allowed to return to Metz, with whom he’d shone the season before in Ligue 2. His 23 goals had been vital in their promotion, and now they needed his help to keep them in the top flight – he couldn’t have done much more, to be fair.

It took him a little while to get going, perhaps unsurprising given a lack of minutes in the first half of 2023-24, but Mikautadze ended up scoring 11 and assisting three goals in Ligue 1 between January and the end of the regular season.

Despite playing in a team struggling towards the bottom of the table, Mikautadze recorded the third most shots (47), joint-fourth most non-penalty goals (eight), seventh highest non-penalty xG total (5.97), second most goal involvements (14) and ranked as high as fifth for Opta-defined ‘big chances’ from the weekend of his first game until the end of the season.

He couldn’t save Metz from relegation as they were ultimately beaten by Saint-Étienne in a play-off, but the club activated their purchase option of €13m and are reportedly confident of selling him on again for roughly €20m.

Ligue 1 Chance-creating carries
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

A dynamic forward who loves to have the ball at his feet, Mikautadze’s 90 dribble attempts was the second most since his return to Ligue 1, while over the same period he recorded seven carries ending in a goal or assist, more than any other player in the French top tier.

One of only three outfielders to play in all 10 qualifiers, Lyon-born Mikautadze could form part of an exciting attack alongside the likes of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Giorgi Chakvetadze for Euros debutants Georgia this summer.

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